THE AFTERNOON sea-breeze had sprung up and was now rioting in from the Pacific. Angel Island was fast dropping astern, and the water-front of San Francisco showing up, as the Dazzler plowed along before it. Soon they were in the midst of the shipping, passing in and out among the vessels which had come from the ends of the earth. Later they crossed the fairway, where the ferry steamers, crowded with passengers, passed to and fro between San Francisco and Oakland. One came so close that the passengers crowded to the side to see the gallant little sloop and the two boys in the cockpit. Joe gazed enviously at the row of down-turned faces. They were all going to their homes, while he—he was going he knew not whither, at the will of French Pete. He was half tempted to cry out for help; but the foolishness of such an act struck him, and he held his tongue. Turning his head, his eyes wandered along the smoky heights of the city, and he fell to musing on the strange way of men and ships on the sea.
’Frisco Kid watched him from the corner of his eye, following his thoughts as accurately as though he spoke them aloud.
“Got a home over there somewheres?” he queried suddenly, waving his hand in the direction of the city.
Joe started, so correctly had his thought been guessed. “Yes,” he said simply.
“Tell us about it.”
Joe rapidly described his home, though forced to go into greater detail because of the curious questions of his companion. ’Frisco Kid was interested in everything, especially in Mrs. Bronson and Bessie. Of the latter he could not seem to tire, and poured forth question after question concerning her. So peculiar and artless were some of them that Joe could hardly forbear to smile.
“Now tell me about yours,” he said when he at last had finished.
’Frisco Kid seemed suddenly to harden, and his face took on a stern look which the other had never seen there before. He swung his foot idly to and fro, and lifted a dull eye aloft to the main-peak blocks, with which, by the way, there was nothing the matter.
“Go ahead,” the other encouraged.
“I have n’t no home.”
The four words left his mouth as though they had been forcibly ejected, and his lips came together after them almost with a snap.
Joe saw he had touched a tender spot, and strove to ease the way out of it again. “Then the home you did have.” He did not dream that there were lads in the world who never had known homes, or that he had only succeeded in probing deeper.
“Never had none.”
“Oh!” His interest was aroused, and he now threw solicitude to the winds. “Any sisters?”
“I was so young when she died that I don’t remember her.”
“I never saw much of him. He went to sea—anyhow, he disappeared.”
“Oh!” Joe did not know what to say, and an oppressive silence, broken only by the churn of the Dazzler’s forefoot, fell upon them.
Just then Pete came out to relieve at the tiller while they went in to eat. Both lads hailed his advent with feelings of relief, and the awkwardness vanished over the dinner, which was all their skipper had claimed it to be. Afterward ’Frisco Kid relieved Pete, and while he was eating Joe washed up the dishes and put the cabin shipshape. Then they all gathered in the stern, where the captain strove to increase the general cordiality by entertaining them with descriptions of life among the pearl-divers of the South Seas.
In this fashion the afternoon wore away. They had long since left San Francisco behind, rounded Hunter’s Point, and were now skirting the San Mateo shore. Joe caught a glimpse, once, of a party of cyclists rounding a cliff on the San Bruno Road, and remembered the time when he had gone over the same ground on his own wheel. It was only a month or two before, but it seemed an age to him now, so much had there been to come between.
By the time supper had been eaten and the things cleared away, they were well down the bay, off the marshes behind which Redwood City clustered. The wind had gone down with the sun, and the Dazzler was making but little headway, when they sighted a sloop bearing down upon them on the dying wind. ’Frisco Kid instantly named it as the Reindeer, to which French Pete, after a deep scrutiny, agreed. He seemed very much pleased at the meeting.
“Red Nelson runs her,” ’Frisco Kid informed Joe. “And he ’s a terror and no mistake. I ’m always afraid of him when he comes near. They ’ve got something big down here, and they ’re always after French Pete to tackle it with them. He knows more about it, whatever it is.”
Joe nodded, and looked at the approaching craft curiously. Though somewhat larger, it was built on about the same lines as the Dazzler which meant, above everything else, that it was built for speed. The mainsail was so large that it was more like that of a racing-yacht, and it carried the points for no less than three reefs in case of rough weather. Aloft and on deck everything was in place—nothing was untidy or useless. From running-gear to standing rigging, everything bore evidence of thorough order and smart seamanship.
The Reindeer came up slowly in the gathering twilight and went to anchor a biscuit-toss away. French Pete followed suit with the Dazzler, and then went in the skiff to pay them a visit. The two lads stretched themselves out on top the cabin and awaited his return.
“Do you like the life?” Joe broke silence.
The other turned on his elbow. “Well—I do, and then again I don’t. The fresh air, and the salt water, and all that, and the freedom—that ’s all right; but I don’t like the—the—” He paused a moment, as though his tongue had failed in its duty, and then blurted out: “the stealing.”
“Then why don’t you quit it?” Joe liked the lad more than he dared confess to himself, and he felt a sudden missionary zeal come upon him.
“I will just as soon as I can turn my hand to something else.”
“But why not now?”
Now is the accepted time was ringing in Joe’s ears, and if the other wished to leave, it seemed a pity that he did not, and at once.
“Where can I go? What can I do? There ’s nobody in all the world to lend me a hand, just as there never has been. I tried it once, and learned my lesson too well to do it again in a hurry.”
“Well, when I get out of this I ’m going home. Guess my father was right, after all. And I don’t see, maybe—what ’s the matter with you going with me?” He said this last without thinking, impulsively, and ’Frisco Kid knew it.
“You don’t know what you ’re talking about,” he answered. “Fancy me going off with you! What ’d your father say? and—and the rest? How would he think of me? And what ’d he do?”
Joe felt sick at heart. He realized that in the spirit of the moment he had given an invitation which, on sober thought, he knew would be impossible to carry out. He tried to imagine his father receiving in his own house a stranger like ’Frisco Kid—no, that was not to be thought of. Then, forgetting his own plight, he fell to racking his brains for some other method by which ’Frisco Kid could get away from his present surroundings.
“He might turn me over to the police,” the other went on, “and send me to a refuge. I ’d die first, before I ’d let that happen to me. And besides, Joe, I ’m not of your kind, and you know it. Why, I ’d be like a fish out of water, what with all the things I did n’t know. Nope; I guess I ’ll have to wait a little before I strike out. But there ’s only one thing for you to do, and that ’s to go straight home. First chance I get I ’ll land you, and then I ’ll deal with French Pete—”
“No, you don’t,” Joe interrupted hotly. “When I leave I ’m not going to leave you in trouble on my account. So don’t you try anything like that. I ’ll get away, never fear, and if I can figure it out I want you to come along too; come along anyway, and figure it out afterward. What d’ you say?”
’Frisco Kid shook his head, and, gazing up at the starlit heavens, wandered off into dreams of the life he would like to lead but from which he seemed inexorably shut out. The seriousness of life was striking deeper than ever into Joe’s heart, and he lay silent, thinking hard. A mumble of heavy voices came to them from the Reindeer; and from the land the solemn notes of a church bell floated across the water, while the summer night wrapped them slowly in its warm darkness.