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In the office of the Red Stack Tug Boat Company, Captain Dan Hicks, master of the tug Aphrodite; Captain Jack Flaherty, master of the Bodega, and Tiernan, the assistant superintendent on night watch, sat around a hot little box stove engaged in that occupation so dear to the maritime heart, to-wit: spinning yarns. Dan Hicks had the floor, and was relating a tale that had to do with his life as a freight and passenger skipper.
"We was makin' up to the dock when I see the general agent standin' in the door o' the dock office--an' all of a sudden I didn't feel so chipper about havin' crossed Humboldt bar in a sou'easter. I saw the old man runnin' his eye along forty foot o' twisted pipe railin', a wrecked bridge, three bent stanchions an' every door an' window on the starboard side o' the ship stove in, while the passengers crowded the rail lookin' cold an' miserable, pea-green an' thankful. No need for me to do any explainin'. He knew. He throws his dead fish eye up to me on what's left o' the bridge an' I felt my job was vacant.
"'We was hit by a sea or two on Humboldt bar, sir,' I says, as if gettin' hit by a sea or two an' havin' the ship gutted was an every-day experience."
"'Is that so, Hicks?' says he sweetly. 'Well, now, if you hadn't told me that I'd ha' jumped to the conclusion that a couple o' the mess boys had got fightin' an' wrecked the ship before you could separate 'em. Why in this an' that,' he says, 'didn't you stick inside when any dumb fool could see the bar was breakin'?'
"'I wanted to keep the comp'ny's sailin' schedule unbroken, sir,' I says, tryin' to be funny.
"'Well, Captain,' he says, 'it 'pears to me you've broken damned near everything else tryin' to do it.'
"I was certain he was goin' to set me down, but the worst I got was a three months' lay-off to teach me common sense----"
The telephone rang and Tiernan answered. Hicks and Flaherty hitched forward in their chairs to listen.
"Hello.... Yes, Red Stack office.... Steamer Yankee Prince.... What's that?... silk and rice?... Half a mile below the Cliff House, eh?... Sure, I'll send a tug right away, Lindstrom."
Tiernan hung up and faced the two skippers. "Gentlemen," he announced, "here's a chance for a little salvage money to-night. The American steamer Yankee Prince is ashore half a mile below the Cliff House. She's a big tramp with a valuable cargo from Hong Kong, with her rudder gone and her crank shaft busted."
"It's high water at twelve thirty-seven," Jack Flaherty pleaded. "You'd better send me, Tiernan. The Bodega has more power than the Aphrodite."
This was the truth and Dan Hicks knew it, but he was not to be beaten out of his share of the salvage by such flimsy argument. "Jack," he pleaded, "don't be a hog all the time. The Yankee Prince is an eight thousand ton vessel and it's a two-tug job. Better send us both, Tiernan, and play safe. Chances are our competitors have three tugs on the way right now."
"What a wonderful imagination you have, Dan. Eight thousand tons! You're crazy, man. She's thirteen hundred net register and I know it because I was in Newport News when they launched her, and I went out with her skipper on the trial trip. She's a long, narrow-gutted craft, with engines aft, like a lake steamer."
"We'll play safe," Tiernan decided. "Go to it--both of you, and may the best man win. She'll belong to you, Jack, if she's thirteen hundred net and you get your line aboard first. If she's as big as Dan says she is, you'll be equal partners----"
But he was talking to himself. Down the dock Hicks and Flaherty were racing for the respective commands, each shouting to his night watchman to pipe all hands on deck. Fortunately, a goodly head of steam was up in each tug's boilers; because of the fog and the liability to collisions and a consequent hasty summons, one engineer on each tug was on duty. Before Hicks and Flaherty were in their respective pilot houses the oil burners were roaring lustily under their respective boilers; the lines were cast off within a minute of each other, and the two tugs raced down the bay through the darkness and fog.
Both Hicks and Flaherty had grown old in the towboat service and the rules of the road rested lightly on their sordid souls. They were going over a course they knew by heart--wherefore the fog had no terrors for them. Down the bay they raced, the Bodega leading slightly, both tugs whistling at half-minute intervals. Out through the Gate they nosed their way, heaving the lead continuously, made a wide detour around Mile Rock and the Seal Rocks, swung a mile to the south of the position of the Maggie, and then came cautiously up the coast, whistling continuously to acquaint the Yankee Prince with their presence in the neighbourhood. In anticipation of the necessity for replying to this welcome sound, Captain Scraggs and Mr. Gibney had, for the past two hours, busied themselves getting up another head of steam in the Maggie's boilers, repairing the whistle, and splicing the wires of the engine room telegraph. Like the wise men they were, however, they declined to sound the Maggie's siren until the tugs were quite close. Even then, Mr. Gibney shuddered, but needs must when the devil drives, so he pulled the whistle cord and was rewarded with a weird, mournful grunt, dying away into a gasp.
"Sounds like she has the pip," Jack Flaherty remarked to his mate.
"Must have taken on some of that dirty Asiatic water," Dan Hicks soliloquized, "and now her tubes have gone to glory."
Immediately, both tugs kicked ahead under a dead slow bell, guided by a series of toots as brief as Mr. Gibney could make them, and presently both tug lookouts reported breakers dead ahead; whereupon Jack Flaherty got out his largest megaphone and bellowed: "Yankee Prince, ahoy!" in his most approved fashion. Dan Hicks did likewise. This irritated the avaricious Flaherty, so he turned his megaphone in the direction of his rival and begged him, if he still retained any of the instincts of a seaman, to shut up; to which entreaty Dan Hicks replied with an acidulous query as to whether or not Jack Flaherty thought he owned the sea.
For half a minute this mild repartee continued, to be interrupted presently by a whoop from out of the fog. It was Mr. Gibney. He did not possess a megaphone so he had gone below and appropriated a section of stove-pipe from the galley range, formed a mouthpiece of cardboard and produced a makeshift that suited his purpose admirably.
"Cut out that bickerin' like a pair of old women an' 'tend to your business," he commanded. "Get busy there--both of you, and shoot a line aboard. There's work enough for two."
Dan Hicks sent a man forward to heave the lead under the nose of the Aphrodite, which was edging in gingerly toward the voice. He had a searchlight but he did not attempt to use it, knowing full well that in such a fog it would be of no avail. Guided, therefore, by the bellowings of Mr. Gibney, reinforced by the shrill yips of Captain Scraggs, the tug crept in closer and closer, and when it seemed that they must be within a hundred feet of the surf, Dan Hicks trained his Lyle gun in the direction of Mr. Gibney's voice and shot a heaving line into the fog.
Almost simultaneous with the report of the gun came a shriek of pain from Captain Scraggs. Straight and true the wet, heavy knotted end of the heaving line came in over the Maggie's quarter and struck him in the mouth. In the darkness he staggered back from the stinging blow, clutched wildly at the air, slipped and rolled over among the vegetables with the precious rope clasped to his breast.
"I got it," he sputtered, "I got it, Gib."
"Safe, O!" Mr. Gibney bawled. "Pay out your hawser."
They met it at the taffrail as it came up out of the breakers, wet but welcome. "Pass it around the mainmast, Scraggsy," Mr. Gibney cautioned. "If we make fast to the towin' bits, the first jerk'll pull the anchor bolts up through the deck."
When the hawser had been made fast to the mainmast, the leathern lungs of Mr. Gibney made due announcement of the fact to the expectant Captain Hicks. "As soon as you feel you've got a grip on her," he yelled, "just hold her steady so she won't drive further up the beach when I get my anchor up. She'll come out like a loose tooth at the tip of the flood."
The Aphrodite forged slowly ahead, taking in the slack of the hawser. Ten minutes passed but still the hawser lay limp across the Maggie's stern. Presently out of the fog came the voice of Captain Dan Hicks.
"Flaherty! Flaher-tee! For the love of life, Jack, where are you? Chuck me a line, Jack. My hawser's snarled in my screw and I'm drifting on to the beach."
"Leggo your anchor, you boob," Jack Flaherty advised.
"I want a line an' none o' your damned advice," raved Hicks.
"'Tain't my fault if you get in too close."
"I'm bumping, Jack. I'm bangin' the heart out of her. Come on, you cur, and haul me off."
"If I pull you off, Dan Hicks, will you leave that steamer alone? You've had your chance and failed to smother it. Now let me have a hack at her."
"It's a bargain, Jack. I'm not badly snarled; if you haul me out to deep water I can shake the hawser loose. I'm afraid to try so close in."
"Comin'," yelled Flaherty.
"Now, ain't that a raw deal?" Scraggs complained. "That junk thief gets hauled off first."
"The first shall be last an' the last shall be first," Gibney quoted piously. "Don't be a crab, Scraggs. Pray that the fog don't lift."
Out of the fog there rose a great hubbub of engine room gongs, the banging of the Bodega's Lyle gun, and much profanity. Presently this ceased, so Scraggs and Gibney knew Dan Hicks was being hauled off at last. While they waited for further developments, Scraggs sucked at his old pipe and Mr. Gibney munched a French carrot. "If you hadn't canned McGuffey," the latter opined, "we might have been able to back off under our own power as soon as the tide is at flood. This delay is worryin' me."
Following some fifteen minutes of kicking and struggling out in the deep water, whither the Bodega had dragged her, the Aphrodite at length freed herself of the clinging hawser; whereupon she backed in again, cautiously reeving in the hawser as she came. Presently, Dan Hicks, true to his promise to abandon the prize to Jack Flaherty, turned his megaphone beachward and shouted:
"Yankee Prince, ahoy! Cast off my hawser. The other tug will put a line aboard you."
But Mr. Gibney was now master of the situation. He had a good hemp hawser stretching between him and salvation and until he should be hauled off he had no intention of slipping that cable. "Nothin' doin'," he answered. "We're hard an' fast, I tell you, and I'll take no chances. It's you or both of you, but I'll not cast off this hawser. If you want to let go, cast the hawser off at your end." Sotto voce he remarked to Scraggs: "I see him slippin' a three hundred dollar hawser, eh, Scraggsy, old stick-in-the-mud?"
"But I promised Flaherty I'd let you alone," pleaded Hicks.
"What do you think you have your string fast to, anyhow? A bay scow? If you fellows endanger my ship bickerin' over the salvage I'll have you before the Inspectors on charges as sure as God made little apples. I got sixty witnesses here to back up my charges, too."
"You hear him, Jack?" howled Hicks.
"Wouldn't that swab Flaherty drive you to drink," Gibney complained. "Trumpin' his partner's ace just for the glory an' profit o' gettin' ahead of him?" Aloud he addressed the invisible Flaherty: "Take it or leave it, brother Flaherty."
"I'll take it," Flaherty responded promptly.
Twenty minutes later, after much backing and swearing and heaving of lines the Bodega's hawser was finally put board the Maggie. Mr. Gibney judged it would be safe now to fasten this line to the towing bitts.
Suddenly, Captain Scraggs remembered there was no one on duty in the Maggie's engine room. With a half sob, he slid down the greasy ladder, tore open the furnace doors and commenced shovelling in coal with a recklessness that bordered on insanity. When the indicator showed eighty pounds of steam he came up on deck and discovered Mr. Gibney walking solemnly round and round the little capstan up forward. It was creaking and groaning dismally. Captain Scraggs thrust his engine room torch above his head to light the scene and gazed upon his navigating officer in blank amazement.
"What foolishness is this, Gib?" he demanded. "Are you clean daffy, doin' a barn dance around that rusty capstan, makin' a noise fit to frighten the fish?"
"Not much," came the laconic reply. "I'm a smart man. I'm raisin' both anchors."
"Well, all I got to remark is that it takes a smart man to raise both anchors when we only got one anchor to our blessed name. An' with that anchor safe on the fo'castle head, I, for one, can't see no sense in raisin' it."
"You tarnation jackass!" sighed Gibney. "You forget who we are. Do you s'pose the steamer Yankee Prince can lay on the beach all night with both anchors out, an' then be got ready to tow off in three shakes of a lamb's tail? It takes noise to get up two anchors--so I'm makin' all the noise I can. Got any steam?"
"Eighty pounds," Scraggs confessed. Having for the moment forgotten his identity, he was confused in the presence of the superior intelligence of his navigating officer.
"Run aft, then, Scraggs, an' turn that cargo winch over to beat the band until I tell you to stop. With the drum runnin' free she'll make noise enough for a winch three times her size, but you might give the necessary yells to make it more lifelike."
Captain Scraggs fled to the winch. At the end of five minutes, Mr. Gibney appeared and bade him desist. Then, turning, his improvised megaphone seaward he addressed an imaginary mate: "Mr. Thompson, have you got your port anchor up?"
Scraggs took the cue immediately. "All clear forward, sir," he piped.
"Send the bosun for'd an' heave the lead, Mr. Thompson."
"Very well, sir."
Here The Squarehead, who had been enjoying the unique situation immensely, decided to take a hand. Presently, in sing-song cadence he was reporting the depth of water alongside.
"That'll do, bosun," Gibney thundered. Then, in his natural voice to Scraggs: "All set, Scraggsy. Guess we're ready to be pulled off. Get down in the engine room and stand by for full speed ahead when I give the word."
"Quick! Hurry!" Scraggs entreated as he disappeared through the little engine-room hatch, for the tide was now at the tip of the flood and the Maggie was bumping wickedly and driving further up the beach. Mr. Gibney turned his stovepipe seaward and shouted: "Tugboats, ahoy!"
"Ahoy!" they answered in unison.
"All read-y-y-y! Let 'er go-o-o-o!"
The Squarehead stationed himself at the bitts with a lantern and Mr. Gibney hastened to the pilot house and took his place at the wheel. When the hawsers commence to lift out of the sea, The Squarehead gave a warning shout, whereupon Mr. Gibney called the engine room. "Give her the gun," he commanded Scraggs. "Pull against them tugs for all you're worth. Remember this is the steamer Yankee Prince. We must not come off too readily."
Captain Scraggs opened the throttle, and while the two tugs steadily drew her off into deep water, the Maggie fought valiantly to stick to the beach and even to continue her interrupted journey overland. She merely succeeded in stretching both hawsers taut; slowly she was drawn seaward, stern first, and at the expiration of fifteen minutes' steady pulling, Mr. Gibney could restrain himself no longer. He rang for full speed astern--and got it promptly. Then, calling Neils Halvorsen to aid him, he abandoned the wheel and scrambled aft.
With no one at the wheel the Maggie shot off at a tangent and the hawsers slacked immediately. In the twinkling of an eye Mr. Gibney had cast them off, and as the ends disappeared with a swish over the stern he ran back to the pilot house, rang for full speed ahead, put his helm hard over, and headed the Maggie in the general direction of China, although as a matter of fact he cared not what direction he pursued, provided he got away from the beach and placed distance between the Maggie and two soon-to-be-furious tugboat skippers.
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