THE WIND freshened as they got clear of the land, and soon the Dazzler was heeling it with her lee deck buried and the water churning by, half-way up the cockpit-rail. Side-lights had been hung out. ’Frisco Kid was steering, and by his side sat Joe, pondering over the events of the night.
He could no longer blind himself to the facts. His mind was in a whirl of apprehension. If he had done wrong, he reasoned, he had done it through ignorance; and he did not feel shame for the past so much as he did fear for the future. His companions were thieves and robbers—the bay pirates, of whose wild deeds he had heard vague tales. And here he was, right in the midst of them, already possessing information which could send them to State’s prison. This very fact, he knew, would force them to keep a sharp watch upon him and so lessen his chances of escape. But escape he would, at the very first opportunity.
At this point his thoughts were interrupted by a sharp squall, which hurled the Dazzler over till the sea rushed inboard. ’Frisco Kid luffed quickly, at the same time slacking off the main-sheet. Then, single-handed,—for French Pete remained below,—and with Joe looking idly on, he proceeded to reef down.
The squall which had so nearly capsized the Dazzler was of short duration, but it marked the rising of the wind, and soon puff after puff was shrieking down upon them out of the north. The mainsail was spilling the wind, and slapping and thrashing about till it seemed it would tear itself to pieces. The sloop was rolling wildly in the quick sea which had come up. Everything was in confusion; but even Joe’s untrained eye showed him that it was an orderly confusion. He could see that ’Frisco Kid knew just what to do and just how to do it. As he watched him he learned a lesson, the lack of which has made failures of the lives of many men—the value of knowledge of one’s own capacities. ’Frisco Kid knew what he was able to do, and because of this he had confidence in himself. He was cool and self-possessed, working hurriedly but not carelessly. There was no bungling. Every reef-point was drawn down to stay. Other accidents might occur, but the next squall, or the next forty squalls, would not carry one of those reef-knots away.
He called Joe for’ard to help stretch the mainsail by means of swinging on the peak and throat-halyards. To lay out on the long bowsprit and put a single reef in the jib was a slight task compared with what had been already accomplished; so a few moments later they were again in the cockpit. Under the other lad’s directions, Joe flattened down the jib-sheet, and, going into the cabin, let down a foot or so of centerboard. The excitement of the struggle had chased all unpleasant thoughts from his mind. Patterning after the other boy, he had retained his coolness. He had executed his orders without fumbling, and at the same time without undue slowness. Together they had exerted their puny strength in the face of violent nature, and together they had outwitted her.
He came back to where his companion stood at the tiller steering, and he felt proud of him and of himself; and when he read the unspoken praise in ’Frisco Kid’s eyes he blushed like a girl at her first compliment. But the next instant the thought flashed across him that this boy was a thief, a common thief; and he instinctively recoiled. His whole life had been sheltered from the harsher things of the world. His reading, which had been of the best, had laid a premium upon honesty and uprightness, and he had learned to look with abhorrence upon the criminal classes. So he drew a little away from ’Frisco Kid and remained silent. But ’Frisco Kid, devoting all his energies to the handling of the sloop, had no time in which to remark this sudden change of feeling on the part of his companion.
But there was one thing Joe found in himself that surprised him. While the thought of ’Frisco Kid being a thief was repulsive to him, ’Frisco Kid himself was not. Instead of feeling an honest desire to shun him, he felt drawn toward him. He could not help liking him, though he knew not why. Had he been a little older he would have understood that it was the lad’s good qualities which appealed to him—his coolness and self-reliance, his manliness and bravery, and a certain kindliness and sympathy in his nature. As it was, he thought it his own natural badness which prevented him from disliking ’Frisco Kid; but, while he felt shame at his own weakness, he could not smother the warm regard which he felt growing up for this particular bay pirate.
“Take in two or three feet on the skiff’s painter,” commanded ’Frisco Kid, who had an eye for everything.
The skiff was towing with too long a painter, and was behaving very badly. Every once in a while it would hold back till the tow-rope tautened, then come leaping ahead and sheering and dropping slack till it threatened to shove its nose under the huge whitecaps which roared so hungrily on every hand. Joe climbed over the cockpit-rail to the slippery after-deck, and made his way to the bitt to which the skiff was fastened.
“Be careful,” ’Frisco Kid warned, as a heavy puff struck the Dazzler and careened her dangerously over on her side. “Keep one turn round the bitt, and heave in on it when the painter slacks.”
It was ticklish work for a greenhorn. Joe threw off all the turns save the last, which he held with one hand, while with the other he attempted to bring in on the painter. But at that instant it tightened with a tremendous jerk, the boat sheering sharply into the crest of a heavy sea. The rope slipped from his hands and began to fly out over the stern. He clutched it frantically, and was dragged after it over the sloping deck.
“Let her go! Let her go!” ’Frisco Kid shouted.
Joe let go just as he was on the verge of going overboard, and the skiff dropped rapidly astern. He glanced in a shamefaced way at his companion, expecting to be sharply reprimanded for his awkwardness. But ’Frisco Kid smiled good-naturedly.
“That ’s all right,” he said. “No bones broke and nobody overboard. Better to lose a boat than a man any day; that ’s what I say. Besides, I should n’t have sent you out there. And there ’s no harm done. We can pick it up all right. Go in and drop some more centerboard,—a couple of feet,—and then come out and do what I tell you. But don’t be in a hurry. Take it easy and sure.”
Joe dropped the centerboard and returned, to be stationed at the jib-sheet.
“Hard a-lee!” ’Frisco Kid cried, throwing the tiller down, and following it with his body. “Cast off! That ’s right. Now lend a hand on the main-sheet!”
Together, hand over hand, they came in on the reefed mainsail. Joe began to warm up with the work. The Dazzler turned on her heel like a race-horse, and swept into the wind, her canvas snarling and her sheets slatting like hail.
“Draw down the jib-sheet!”
Joe obeyed, and, the head-sail filling, forced her off on the other tack. This manuver had turned French Pete’s bunk from the lee to the weather side, and rolled him out on the cabin floor, where he lay in a drunken stupor.
’Frisco Kid, with his back against the tiller and holding the sloop off that it might cover their previous course, looked at him with an expression of disgust, and muttered: “The dog! We could well go to the bottom, for all he ’d care or do!”
Twice they tacked, trying to go over the same ground; and then Joe discovered the skiff bobbing to windward in the star-lit darkness.
“Plenty of time,” ’Frisco Kid cautioned, shooting the Dazzler into the wind toward it and gradually losing headway. “Now!”
Joe leaned over the side, grasped the trailing painter, and made it fast to the bitt. Then they tacked ship again and started on their way. Joe still felt ashamed for the trouble he had caused; but ’Frisco Kid quickly put him at ease.
“Oh, that ’s nothing,” he said. “Everybody does that when they ’re beginning. Now some men forget all about the trouble they had in learning, and get mad when a greeny makes a mistake. I never do. Why, I remember—”
And then he told Joe of many of the mishaps which fell to him when, as a little lad, he first went on the water, and of some of the severe punishments for the same which were measured out to him. He had passed the running end of a lanyard over the tiller-neck, and as they talked they sat side by side and close against each other in the shelter of the cockpit.
“What place is that?” Joe asked, as they flew by a lighthouse blinking from a rocky headland.
“Goat Island. They ’ve got a naval training station for boys over on the other side, and a torpedo-magazine. There ’s jolly good fishing, too—rock-cod. We ’ll pass to the lee of it, and make across, and anchor in the shelter of Angel Island. There ’s a quarantine station there. Then when French Pete gets sober we ’ll know where he wants to go. You can turn in now and get some sleep. I can manage all right.”
Joe shook his head. There had been too much excitement for him to feel in the least like sleeping. He could not bear to think of it with the Dazzler leaping and surging along and shattering the seas into clouds of spray on her weather bow. His clothes had half dried already, and he preferred to stay on deck and enjoy it.
The lights of Oakland had dwindled till they made only a hazy flare against the sky; but to the south the San Francisco lights, topping hills and sinking into valleys, stretched miles upon miles. Starting from the great ferry building, and passing on to Telegraph Hill, Joe was soon able to locate the principal places of the city. Somewhere over in that maze of light and shadow was the home of his father, and perhaps even now they were thinking and worrying about him; and over there Bessie was sleeping cozily, to wake up in the morning and wonder why her brother Joe did not come down to breakfast. Joe shivered. It was almost morning. Then slowly his head dropped over on ’Frisco Kid’s shoulder and he was fast asleep.