“GET UP ze mainsail and break out ze hook!” the Frenchman shouted. “And den tail on to ze Reindeer! No side-lights!”
“Come! Cast off those gaskets—lively!” ’Frisco Kid ordered. “Now lay on to the peak-halyards—there, that rope—cast it off the pin. And don’t hoist ahead of me. There! Make fast! We ’ll stretch it afterwards. Run aft and come in on the main-sheet! Shove the helm up!”
Under the sudden driving power of the mainsail, the Dazzler strained and tugged at her anchor like an impatient horse till the muddy iron left the bottom with a rush and she was free.
“Let go the sheet! Come for’ard again and lend a hand on the chain! Stand by to give her the jib!” ’Frisco Kid the boy who mooned over girls in pictorial magazines had vanished, and ’Frisco Kid the sailor, strong and dominant, was on deck. He ran aft and tacked about as the jib rattled aloft in the hands of Joe, who quickly joined him. Just then the Reindeer, like a monstrous bat, passed to leeward of them in the gloom.
“Ah, dose boys! Dey take all-a night!” they heard French Pete exclaim, and then the gruff voice of Red Nelson, who said: “Never you mind, Frenchy. I taught the Kid his sailorizing, and I ain’t never been ashamed of him yet.”
The Reindeer was the faster boat, but by spilling the wind from her sails they managed so that the boys could keep them in sight. The breeze came steadily in from the west, with a promise of early increase. The stars were being blotted out by masses of driving clouds, which indicated a greater velocity in the upper strata. ’Frisco Kid surveyed the sky.
“Going to have it good and stiff before morning,” he said, “just as I told you.”
Several hours later, both boats stood in for the San Mateo shore, and dropped anchor not more than a cable’s-length away. A little wharf ran out, the bare end of which was perceptible to them, though they could discern a small yacht lying moored to a buoy a short distance away.
According to their custom, everything was put in readiness for hasty departure. The anchors could be tripped and the sails flung out on a moment’s notice. Both skiffs came over noiselessly from the Reindeer. Red Nelson had given one of his two men to French Pete, so that each skiff was doubly manned. They were not a very prepossessing group of men,—at least, Joe did not think so,—for their faces bore a savage seriousness which almost made him shiver. The captain of the Dazzler buckled on his pistol-belt, and placed a rifle and a stout double-block tackle in the boat. Then he poured out wine all around, and, standing in the darkness of the little cabin, they pledged success to the expedition. Red Nelson was also armed, while his men wore at their hips the customary sailor’s sheath-knife. They were very slow and careful to avoid noise in getting into the boats, French Pete pausing long enough to warn the boys to remain quietly aboard and not try any tricks.
“Now ’d be your chance, Joe, if they had n’t taken the skiff,” ’Frisco Kid whispered, when the boats had vanished into the loom of the land.
“What ’s the matter with the Dazzler?” was the unexpected answer. “We could up sail and away before you could say Jack Robinson.”
’Frisco Kid hesitated. The spirit of comradeship was strong in the lad, and deserting a companion in a pinch could not but be repulsive to him.
“I don’t think it ’d be exactly square to leave them in the lurch ashore,” he said. “Of course,” he went on hurriedly, “I know the whole thing ’s wrong; but you remember that first night, when you came running through the water for the skiff, and those fellows on the bank busy popping away? We did n’t leave you in the lurch, did we?”
Joe assented reluctantly, and then a new thought flashed across his mind. “But they ’re pirates—and thieves—and criminals. They ’re breaking the law, and you and I are not willing to be lawbreakers. Besides, they ’ll not be left. There ’s the Reindeer. There ’s nothing to prevent them from getting away on her, and they ’ll never catch us in the dark.”
“Come on, then.” Though he had agreed, ’Frisco Kid did not quite like it, for it still seemed to savor of desertion.
They crawled forward and began to hoist the mainsail. The anchor they could slip, if necessary, and save the time of pulling it up. But at the first rattle of the halyards on the sheaves a warning “Hist!” came to them through the darkness, followed by a loudly whispered “Drop that!”
Glancing in the direction from which these sounds proceeded, they made out a white face peering at them from over the rail of the other sloop.
“Aw, it ’s only the Reindeer’s boy,” ’Frisco Kid said. “Come on.”
Again they were interrupted at the first rattling of the blocks.
“I say, you fellers, you ’d better let go them halyards pretty quick, I ’m a-tellin’ you, or I ’ll give you what for!”
This threat being dramatically capped by the click of a cocking pistol, ’Frisco Kid obeyed and went grumblingly back to the cockpit. “Oh, there ’s plenty more chances to come,” he whispered consolingly to Joe. “French Pete was cute, was n’t he? He thought you might be trying to make a break, and put a guard on us.”
Nothing came from the shore to indicate how the pirates were faring. Not a dog barked, not a light flared. Yet the air seemed quivering with an alarm about to burst forth. The night had taken on a strained feeling of intensity, as though it held in store all kinds of terrible things. The boys felt this keenly as they huddled against each other in the cockpit and waited.
“You were going to tell me about your running away,” Joe ventured finally, “and why you came back again.”
’Frisco Kid took up the tale at once, speaking in a muffled undertone close to the other’s ear.
“You see, when I made up my mind to quit the life, there was n’t a soul to lend me a hand; but I knew that the only thing for me to do was to get ashore and find some kind of work, so I could study. Then I figured there ’d be more chance in the country than in the city; so I gave Red Nelson the slip—I was on the Reindeer then. One night on the Alameda oyster-beds, I got ashore and headed back from the bay as fast as I could sprint. Nelson did n’t catch me. But they were all Portuguese farmers thereabouts, and none of them had work for me. Besides, it was in the wrong time of the year—winter. That shows how much I knew about the land.
“I ’d saved up a couple of dollars, and I kept traveling back, deeper and deeper into the country, looking for work, and buying bread and cheese and such things from the storekeepers. I tell you, it was cold, nights, sleeping out without blankets, and I was always glad when morning came. But worse than that was the way everybody looked on me. They were all suspicious, and not a bit afraid to show it, and sometimes they ’d set their dogs on me and tell me to get along. Seemed as though there was n’t any place for me on the land. Then my money gave out, and just about the time I was good and hungry I got captured.”
“Captured! What for?”
“Nothing. Living, I suppose. I crawled into a haystack to sleep one night, because it was warmer, and along comes a village constable and arrests me for being a tramp. At first they thought I was a runaway, and telegraphed my description all over. I told them I did n’t have any people, but they would n’t believe me for a long while. And then, when nobody claimed me, the judge sent me to a boys’ ‘refuge’ in San Francisco.”
He stopped and peered intently in the direction of the shore. The darkness and the silence in which the men had been swallowed up was profound. Nothing was stirring save the rising wind.
“I thought I ’d die in that ‘refuge.’ It was just like being in jail. We were locked up and guarded like prisoners. Even then, if I could have liked the other boys it might have been all right. But they were mostly street-boys of the worst kind—lying, and sneaking, and cowardly, without one spark of manhood or one idea of square dealing and fair play. There was only one thing I did like, and that was the books. Oh, I did lots of reading, I tell you! But that could n’t make up for the rest. I wanted the freedom and the sunlight and the salt water. And what had I done to be kept in prison and herded with such a gang? Instead of doing wrong, I had tried to do right, to make myself better, and that ’s what I got for it. I was n’t old enough, you see, to reason anything out.
“Sometimes I ’d see the sunshine dancing on the water and showing white on the sails, and the Reindeer cutting through it just as you please, and I ’d get that sick I would know hardly what I did. And then the boys would come against me with some of their meannesses, and I ’d start in to lick the whole kit of them. Then the men in charge would lock me up and punish me. Well, I could n’t stand it any longer; I watched my chance and ran for it. Seemed as though there was n’t any place on the land for me, so I picked up with French Pete and went back on the bay. That ’s about all there is to it, though I ’m going to try it again when I get a little older—old enough to get a square deal for myself.”
“You ’re going to go back on the land with me,” Joe said authoritatively, laying a hand on his shoulder. “That ’s what you ’re going to do. As for—”
Bang! a revolver-shot rang out from the shore. Bang! bang! More guns were speaking sharply and hurriedly. A man’s voice rose wildly on the air and died away. Somebody began to cry for help. Both boys were on their feet on the instant, hoisting the mainsail and getting everything ready to run. The Reindeer boy was doing likewise. A man, roused from his sleep on the yacht, thrust an excited head through the skylight, but withdrew it hastily at sight of the two stranger sloops. The intensity of waiting was broken, the time for action come.