JOE did not mind. In fact, he was glad he had not caught the first fish, for it helped out a little plan which had come to him while swimming. He threw the last cleaned fish into a bucket of water and glanced about him. The quarantine station was a bare half-mile away, and he could make out a soldier pacing up and down at sentry duty on the beach. Going into the cabin, he listened to the heavy breathing of the sleepers. He had to pass so close to ’Frisco Kid to get his bundle of clothes that he decided not to take it. Returning outside, he carefully pulled the skiff alongside, got aboard with a pair of oars, and cast off.
At first he rowed very gently in the direction of the station, fearing the chance of noise if he made undue haste. But gradually he increased the strength of his strokes till he had settled down to the regular stride. When he had covered half the distance he glanced about. Escape was sure now, for he knew, even if he were discovered, that it would be impossible for the Dazzler to get under way and head him off before he made the land and the protection of that man who wore the uniform of Uncle Sam’s soldiers.
The report of a gun came to him from the shore, but his back was in that direction and he did not bother to turn around. A second report followed, and a bullet cut the water within a couple of feet of his oar-blade. This time he did turn around. The soldier on the beach was leveling his rifle at him for a third shot.
Joe was in a predicament, and a very tantalizing one at that. A few minutes of hard rowing would bring him to the beach and to safety; but on that beach, for some unaccountable reason, stood a United States soldier who persisted in firing at him. When Joe saw the gun aimed at him for the third time, he backed water hastily. As a result, the skiff came to a standstill, and the soldier, lowering his rifle, regarded him intently.
“I want to come ashore! Important!” Joe shouted out to him.
The man in uniform shook his head.
“But it ’s important, I tell you! Won’t you let me come ashore?”
He took a hurried look in the direction of the Dazzler. The shots had evidently awakened French Pete, for the mainsail had been hoisted, and as he looked he saw the anchor broken out and the jib flung to the breeze.
“Can’t land here!” the soldier shouted back. “Smallpox!”
“But I must!” he cried, choking down a half-sob and preparing to row.
“Then I ’ll shoot you,” was the cheering response, and the rifle came to shoulder again.
Joe thought rapidly. The island was large. Perhaps there were no soldiers farther on, and if he only once got ashore he did not care how quickly they captured him. He might catch the smallpox, but even that was better than going back to the bay pirates. He whirled the skiff half about to the right, and threw all his strength against the oars. The cove was quite wide, and the nearest point which he must go around a good distance away. Had he been more of a sailor, he would have gone in the other direction for the opposite point, and thus had the wind on his pursuers. As it was, the Dazzler had a beam wind in which to overtake him.
It was nip and tuck for a while. The breeze was light and not very steady, so sometimes he gained and sometimes they. Once it freshened till the sloop was within a hundred yards of him, and then it dropped suddenly flat, the Dazzler’s big mainsail flapping idly from side to side.
“Ah! you steal ze skiff, eh?” French Pete howled at him, running into the cabin for his rifle. “I fix you! You come back queeck, or I kill you!” But he knew the soldier was watching them from the shore, and did not dare to fire, even over the lad’s head.
Joe did not think of this, for he, who had never been shot at in all his previous life, had been under fire twice in the last twenty-four hours. Once more or less could n’t amount to much. So he pulled steadily away, while French Pete raved like a wild man, threatening him with all manner of punishments once he laid hands upon him again. To complicate matters, ’Frisco Kid waxed mutinous.
“Just you shoot him, and I ’ll see you hung for it—see if I don’t,” he threatened. “You ’d better let him go. He ’s a good boy and all right, and not raised for the dirty life you and I are leading.”
“You too, eh!” the Frenchman shrieked, beside himself with rage. “Den I fix you, you rat!”
He made a rush for the boy, but ’Frisco Kid led him a lively chase from cockpit to bowsprit and back again. A sharp capful of wind arriving just then, French Pete abandoned the one chase for the other. Springing to the tiller and slacking away on the main-sheet,—for the wind favored,—he headed the sloop down upon Joe. The latter made one tremendous spurt, then gave up in despair and hauled in his oars. French Pete let go the main-sheet, lost steerageway as he rounded up alongside the motionless skiff, and dragged Joe out.
“Keep mum,” ’Frisco Kid whispered to him while the irate Frenchman was busy fastening the painter. “Don’t talk back. Let him say all he wants to, and keep quiet. It ’ll be better for you.”
But Joe’s Anglo-Saxon blood was up, and he did not heed.
“Look here, Mr. French Pete, or whatever your name is,” he commenced; “I give you to understand that I want to quit, and that I ’m going to quit. So you ’d better put me ashore at once. If you don’t I ’ll put you in prison, or my name ’s not Joe Bronson.”
’Frisco Kid waited the outcome fearfully. French Pete was aghast. He was being defied aboard his own vessel—and by a boy! Never had such a thing been heard of. He knew he was committing an unlawful act in detaining him, but at the same time he was afraid to let him go with the information he had gathered concerning the sloop and its occupation. The boy had spoken the unpleasant truth when he said he could send him to prison. The only thing for him to do was to bully him.
“You will, eh?” His shrill voice rose wrathfully. “Den you come too. You row ze boat last-a night—answer me dat! You steal ze iron—answer me dat! You run away—answer me dat! And den you say you put me in jail? Bah!”
“But I did n’t know,” Joe protested.
“Ha, ha! Dat is funny. You tell dat to ze judge; mebbe him laugh, eh?”
“I say I did n’t,” he reiterated manfully. “I did n’t know I ’d shipped along with a lot of thieves.”
’Frisco Kid winced at this epithet, and had Joe been looking at him he would have seen a red flush mount to his face.
“And now that I do know,” he continued, “I wish to be put ashore. I don’t know anything about the law, but I do know something of right and wrong; and I ’m willing to take my chance with any judge for whatever wrong I have done—with all the judges in the United States, for that matter. And that ’s more than you can say, Mr. Pete.”
“You say dat, eh? Vaire good. But you are one big t’ief—”
“I ’m not—don’t you dare call me that again!” Joe’s face was pale, and he was trembling—but not with fear.
“T’ief!” the Frenchman taunted back.
Joe had not been a boy among boys for nothing. He knew the penalty which attached itself to the words he had just spoken, and he expected to receive it. So he was not overmuch surprised when he picked himself up from the floor of the cockpit an instant later, his head still ringing from a stiff blow between the eyes.
“Say dat one time more,” French Pete bullied, his fist raised and prepared to strike.
Tears of anger stood in Joe’s eyes, but he was calm and in deadly earnest. “When you say I am a thief, Pete, you lie. You can kill me, but still I will say you lie.”
“No, you don’t!” ’Frisco Kid had darted in like a cat, preventing a second blow, and shoving the Frenchman back across the cockpit.
“You leave the boy alone!” he continued, suddenly unshipping and arming himself with the heavy iron tiller, and standing between them. “This thing ’s gone just about as far as it ’s going to go. You big fool, can’t you see the stuff the boy ’s made of? He speaks true. He ’s right, and he knows it, and you could kill him and he would n’t give in. There ’s my hand on it, Joe.” He turned and extended his hand to Joe, who returned the grip. “You ’ve got spunk and you ’re not afraid to show it.”
French Pete’s mouth twisted itself in a sickly smile, but the evil gleam in his eyes gave it the lie. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ah! So? He does not dee-sire dat I call him pet names. Ha, ha! It is only ze sailorman play. Let us—what you call—forgive and forget, eh? Vaire good; forgive and forget.”
He reached out his hand, but Joe refused to take it. ’Frisco Kid nodded approval, while French Pete, still shrugging his shoulders and smiling, passed into the cabin.
“Slack off ze main-sheet,” he called out, “and run down for Hunter’s Point. For one time I will cook ze dinner, and den you will say dat it is ze vaire good dinner. Ah! French Pete is ze great cook!”
“That ’s the way he always does—gets real good and cooks when he wants to make up,” ’Frisco Kid hazarded, slipping the tiller into the rudder-head and obeying the order. “But even then you can’t trust him.”
Joe nodded his head, but did not speak. He was in no mood for conversation. He was still trembling from the excitement of the last few moments, while deep down he questioned himself on how he had behaved, and found nothing to be ashamed of.