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The Iron Trail

The Iron Trail

Author:Rex Beach


The ship stole through the darkness with extremest caution, feeling her way past bay and promontory. Around her was none of that phosphorescent glow which lies above the open ocean, even...
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  The ship stole through the darkness with extremest caution, feeling herway past bay and promontory. Around her was none of that phosphorescentglow which lies above the open ocean, even on the darkest night, forthe mountains ran down to the channel on either side. In places theyoverhung, and where they lay upturned against the dim sky it could beseen that they were mantled with heavy timber. All day long theNEBRASKA had made her way through an endless succession of straits andsounds, now squeezing through an inlet so narrow that the somber sprucetrees seemed to be within a short stone's-throw, again plowing acrosssome open reach where the pulse of the north Pacific could be felt. Outthrough the openings to seaward stretched the restless ocean, on acrossuncounted leagues, to Saghalien and the rim of Russia's prison-yard.

  Always near at hand was the deep green of the Canadian forests, denser,darker than a tropic jungle, for this was the land of "plenty waters."The hillsides were carpeted knee-deep with moss, wet to saturation. Outof every gulch came a brawling stream whipped to milk-white frenzy;snow lay heavy upon the higher levels, while now and then from fartherinland peered a glacier, like some dead monster crushed between thegranite peaks. There were villages, too, and fishing-stations, andmines and quarries. These burst suddenly upon the view, then slippedpast with dreamlike swiftness. Other ships swung into sight, rushed by,and were swallowed up in the labyrinthine maze astern.

  Those passengers of the Nebraska who had never before traversed the"Inside Passage" were loud in the praises of its picturesqueness, whilethose to whom the route was familiar seemed to find an ever-freshfascination in its shifting scenes.

  Among the latter was Murray O'Neil. The whole north coast from Flatteryto St. Elias was as well mapped in his mind as the face of an oldfriend, yet he was forever discovering new vistas, surprisingpanoramas, amazing variations of color and topography. The mysteriousrifts and passageways that opened and closed as if to lure the shipastray, the trackless confusion of islets, the siren song of thewaterfalls, the silent hills and glaciers and snow-soaked forests--allappealed to him strongly, for he was at heart a dreamer.

  Yet he did not forget that scenery such as this, lovely as it is byday, may be dangerous at night, for he knew the weakness of steelhulls. On some sides his experience and business training had made himsternly practical and prosaic. Ships aroused no manner of enthusiasm inhim except as means to an end. Railroads had no glamour of romance inhis eyes, for, having built a number of them, he had outlived allpoetic notions regarding the "iron horse," and once the rails were laidhe was apt to lose interest in them. Nevertheless, he was almost poeticin his own quiet way, interweaving practical thoughts with fancifulvisions, and he loved his dreams. He was dreaming now as he leaned uponthe bridge rail of the Nebraska, peering into the gloom with watchfuleyes. From somewhere to port came the occasional commands of theofficer on watch, echoed instantly from the inky interior of thewheelhouse. Up overside rose the whisper of rushing waters; fromunderfoot came the rhythmic beat of the engines far below. O'Neil shookoff his mood and began to wonder idly how long it would be beforeCaptain Johnny would be ready for his "nightcap."

  He always traveled with Johnny Brennan when he could manage it, for thetwo men were boon companions. O'Neil was wont to live in Johnny'scabin, or on the bridge, and their nightly libation to friendship hadcome to be a matter of some ceremony.

  The ship's master soon appeared from the shadows--a short, trim manwith gray hair.

  "Come," he cried, "it's waiting for us."

  O'Neil followed into Brennan's luxurious, well-lit quarters, where on amahogany sideboard was a tray holding decanter, siphon, and glasses,together with a bottle of ginger ale. The captain, after he had mixed abeverage for his passenger, opened the bottle for himself. They raisedtheir glasses silently.

  "Now that you're past the worst of it," remarked O'Neil, "I supposeyou'll turn in. You're getting old for a hard run like this, Johnny."

  Captain Brennan snorted. "Old? I'm a better man than you, yet. I'm ateetotaler, that's why. I discovered long ago that salt water andwhiskey don't mix."

  O'Neil stretched himself out in one of Brennan's easy-chairs. "Really,"he said, "I don't understand why a ship carries a captain. Now of whatearthly use to the line are you, for instance, except for your beauty,which, no doubt, has its value with the women? I'll admit you presidewith some grace at the best table in the dining-salon, but yourofficers know these channels as well as you do. They could make the runfrom Seattle to Juneau with their eyes shut."

  "Indeed they could not; and neither could I."

  "Oh, well, of course I have no respect for you as a man, having seenyou without your uniform."

  The captain grinned in thorough enjoyment of this raillery. "I'll saynothing at all of my seamanship," he said, relapsing into the faintestof brogues, "but there's no denying that the master of a ship has manyunpleasant and disgusting duties to perform. He has to amuse theprominent passengers who can't amuse themselves, for one thing, andthat takes tact and patience. Why, some people make themselves at homeon the bridge, in the chart-room, and even in my living-quarters, tosay nothing of consuming my expensive wines, liquors, and cigars."

  "Meaning me?"

  "I'm a brutal seafaring man, and you'll have to make allowances for mywell-known brusqueness. Maybe I did mean you. But I'll say that next toyou Curtis Gordon is the worst grafter I ever saw."

  "You don't like Gordon, do you?" O'Neil queried with a change of tone.

  "I do not! He went up with me again this spring, and he had his widowwith him, too."

  "His widow?"

  "You know who I mean--Mrs. Gerard. They say it's her money he's usingin his schemes. Perhaps it's because of her that I don't like him."

  "Ah-h! I see."

  "You don't see, or you wouldn't grin like an ape. I'm a married man,I'll have you know, and I'm still on good terms with Mrs. Brennan,thank God. But I don't like men who use women's money, and that's justwhat our friend Gordon is doing. What money the widow didn't put uphe's grabbed from the schoolma'ams and servant-girls and societymatrons in the East. What has he got to show them for it?"

  "A railroad project, a copper-mine, some coal claims--"

  "Bah! A menagerie of wildcats!"

  "You can't prove that. What's your reason for distrusting him?"

  "Well, for one thing, he knows too much. Why, he knows everything, hedoes. Art, literature, politics, law, finance, and draw poker have nosecrets from him. He's been everywhere--and back--twice; he speaks adozen different languages. He out-argued me on poultry-raising and Iknow more about that than any man living. He can handle a drill or acoach-and-four; he can tell all about the art of ancient Babylon; andhe beat me playing cribbage, which shows that he ain't on the level.He's the best-informed man outside of a university, and he drinks teaof an afternoon--with his legs crossed and the saucer balanced on hisheel. Now, it takes years of hard work for an honest man to make asuccess at one thing, but Gordon never failed at anything. I ask you ifa living authority on all the branches of human endeavor and a man whocan beat me at 'crib' doesn't make you suspicious."

  "Not at all. I've beaten you myself!"

  "I was sick," said Captain Brennan.

  "The man is brilliant and well educated and wealthy. It's only naturalthat he should excite the jealousy of a weaker intellect."

  Johnny opened his lips for an explosion, then changed his mind andagreed sourly.

  "He's got money, all right, and he knows how to spend it. He and hisvalet occupied three cabins on this ship. They say his quarters at Hopeare palatial."

  "My dear grampus, the mere love of luxury doesn't argue that a personis dishonest."

  "Would you let a hired man help you on with your underclothes?"demanded the mariner.

  "There's nothing criminal about it."

  "Humph! Mrs. Gerard is different. She's all class! You don't mind herhaving a maid and speaking French when she runs short of English. Herdaughter is like her."

  "I haven't seen Miss Gerard."

  "If you'd stir about the ship instead of wearing out my Morris chairyou'd have that pleasure. She was on deck all morning." Captain Brennanfell silent and poked with a stubby forefinger at the ice in his glass.

  "Well, out with it!" said O'Neil after a moment.

  "I'd like to know the inside story of Curtis Gordon and this girl'smother."

  "Why bother your head about something that doesn't concern you?" Thespeaker rose and began to pace the cabin floor, then, in an alteredtone, inquired, "Tell me, are you going to land me and my horses atKyak Bay?"

  "That depends on the weather. It's a rotten harbor; you'll have to swimthem ashore."

  "Suppose it should be rough?"

  "Then we'll go on, and drop you there coming back. I don't want to becaught on that shore with a southerly wind, and that's the way itusually blows."

  "I can't wait," O'Neil declared. "A week's delay might ruin me. Ratherthan go on I'd swim ashore myself, without the horses."

  "I don't make the weather at Kyak Bay. Satan himself does that. Twentymiles offshore it may be calm, and inside it may be blowing a gale.That's due to the glaciers. Those ice-fields inland and the warm airfrom the Japanese Current offshore kick up some funny atmosphericpranks. It's the worst spot on the coast and we'll lose a ship theresome day. Why, the place isn't properly charted, let alone buoyed."

  "That's nothing unusual for this coast."

  "True for you. This is all a graveyard of ships and there's been many agood master's license lost because of half-baked laws from Washington.Think of a coast like this with almost no lights, no beacons nor buoys;and yet we're supposed to make time. It's fine in clear weather, but inthe dark we go by guess and by God. I've stood the run longer than mostof the skippers, but--"

  Even as Brennan spoke the Nebraska seemed to halt, to jerk backwardunder his feet. O'Neil, who was standing, flung out an arm to steadyhimself; the empty ginger-ale bottle fell from the sideboard with athump. Loose articles hanging against the side walls swung to and fro;the heavy draperies over Captain Johnny's bed swayed.

  Brennan leaped from his chair; his ruddy face was mottled, his eyeswere wide and horror-stricken.

  "Damnation!" he gasped. The cabin door crashed open ahead of him and hewas on the bridge, with O'Neil at his heels. They saw the first officerclinging limply to the rail; from the pilot-house window came anexcited burst of Norwegian, then out of the door rushed a quartermaster.

  Brennan cursed, and met the fellow with a blow which drove himsprawling back.

  "Get in there, Swan," he bellowed, "and take your wheel."

  "The tide swung her in!" exclaimed the mate. "The tide--My God!"

  "Sweet Queen Anne!" said Brennan, more quietly. "You've ripped herbelly out."

  "It--was the tide," chattered the officer.

  The steady, muffled beating of the machinery ceased, the ship seemedsuddenly to lose her life, but it was plain that she was not aground,for she kept moving through the gloom. From down forward came excitedvoices as the crew poured up out of the forecastle.

  Brennan leaped to the telegraph and signaled the engine-room. He wascalm now, and his voice was sharp and steady.

  "Go below, Mr. James, and find the extent of the damage," he directed,and a moment later the hull began to throb once more to the thrust ofthe propeller. Inside the wheelhouse Swan had recovered from his panicand repeated the master's orders mechanically.

  The second and third officers arrived upon the bridge now, dressing asthey came, and they were followed by the chief engineer. To them Johnnyspoke, his words crackling like the sparks from a wireless. In anincredibly short time he had the situation in hand and turned toO'Neil, who had been a silent witness of the scene.

  "Glory be!" exclaimed the captain. "Most of our good passengers areasleep; the jar would scarcely wake them."

  "Tell me where and how I can help," Murray offered. His first thoughthad been of the possible effect of this catastrophe upon his plans, fortime was pressing. As for danger, he had looked upon it so often and inso many forms that it had little power to stir him; but a shipwreck,which would halt his northward rush, was another matter. Whether theship sank or floated could make little difference, now that the damagehad been done. She was crippled and would need assistance. Hisfellow-passengers, he knew, were safe enough. Fortunately there werenot many of them--a scant two hundred, perhaps--and if worse came toworst there was room in the life-boats for all. But the Nebraska had nowatertight bulkheads and the plight of his twenty horses between decksfilled him with alarm and pity. There were no life-boats for those poordumb animals penned down yonder in the rushing waters.

  Brennan had stepped into the chart-room, but returned in a moment tosay:

  "There's no place to beach her this side of Halibut Bay."

  "How far is that?"

  "Five or six miles."

  "You'll--have to beach her?"

  "I'm afraid so. She feels queer."

  Up from the cabin deck came a handful of men passengers to inquire whathad happened; behind them a woman began calling shrilly for her husband.

  "We touched a rock," the skipper explained, briefly. "Kindly go belowand stop that squawking. There's no danger."

  There followed a harrowing wait of several minutes; then James, thefirst officer, came to report. He had regained his nerve and spoke withswift precision.

  "She loosened three plates on her port quarter and she's filling fast."

  "How long will she last?" snapped Brennan.

  "Not long, sir. Half an hour, perhaps."

  The captain rang for full speed, and the decks began to strain as theengine increased its labor. "Get your passengers out and stand by theboats," he ordered. "Take it easy and don't alarm the women. Have themdress warmly, and don't allow any crowding by the men. Mr. Tomlinson,you hold the steerage gang in check. Take your revolver with you." Heturned to his silent friend, in whose presence he seemed to feel acheering sympathy, "I knew it would come sooner or later, Murray," hesaid. "But--magnificent mummies! To touch on a clear night with the sealike glass!" He sighed dolefully. "It'll be tough on my missus."

  O'Neil laid a hand upon his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, and therewill be room in the last boat for you. Understand?" Brennan hesitated,and the other continued, roughly: "No nonsense, now! Don't make adamned fool of yourself by sticking to the bridge. Promise?"

  "I promise."

  "Now what do you want me to do?"

  "Keep those dear passengers quiet. I'll run for Halibut Bay, wherethere's a sandy beach. If she won't make it I'll turn her into therocks, Tell 'em they won't wet a foot if they keep their heads."

  "Good! I'll be back to see that you behave yourself." The speakerlaughed lightly and descended to the deck, where he found an incipientpanic. Stewards were pounding on stateroom doors, half-clad men wererushing about aimlessly, pallid faces peered forth from windows, andthere was the sound of running feet, of slamming doors, of shrill,hysterical voices.

  O'Neil saw a waiter thumping lustily upon a door and heard him shout,hoarsely:

  "Everybody out! The ship is sinking!" As he turned away Murray seizedhim roughly by the arm and thrusting his face close to the other's,said harshly:

  "If you yell again like that I'll toss you overboard."

  "God help us, we're going--"

  O'Neil shook the fellow until his teeth rattled; his own countenance,ordinarily so quiet, was blazing.

  "There's no danger. Act like a man and don't start a stampede."

  The steward pulled himself together and answered in a calmer tone:

  "Very well, sir. I--I'm sorry, sir."

  Murray O'Neil was known to most of the passengers, for his name hadgone up and down the coast, and there were few places from SanFrancisco to Nome where his word did not carry weight. As he went amonghis fellow-travelers now, smiling, self-contained, unruffled, hispresence had its effect. Women ceased their shrilling, men stoppedtheir senseless questions and listened to his directions with somecomprehension. In a short time the passengers were marshaled upon theupper deck where the life-boats hung between their davits. Each littlecraft was in charge of its allotted crew, the electric lights continuedto burn brightly, and the panic gradually wore itself out. Meanwhilethe ship was running a desperate race with the sea, striving with everyounce of steam in her boilers to find a safe berth for her mutilatedbody before the inrush of waters drowned her fires. That the race wasclose even the dullest understood, for the Nebraska was settlingforward, and plowed into the night head down, like a thing maddenedwith pain. She was becoming unmanageable, too, and O'Neil thought withpity of that little iron-hearted skipper on the bridge who was fightingher so furiously.

  There was little confusion, little talking upon the upper deck now;only a child whimpered or a woman sobbed hysterically. But down forwardamong the steerage passengers the case was different. These were mainlyMontenegrins, Polacks, or Slavs bound for the construction camps to thewestward, and they surged from side to side like cattle, requiringTomlinson's best efforts to keep them from rushing aft.

  O'Neil had employed thousands of such men; in fact, many of these veryfellows had cashed his time-checks and knew him by sight. He wentforward among them, and his appearance proved instantly reassuring. Hefound his two hostlers, and with their aid he soon reduced the mob tocomparative order.

  But in spite of his confident bearing he felt a great uneasiness. TheNebraska seemed upon the point of diving; he judged she must besettling very fast, and wondered that the forward tilt did not lift herpropeller out of the water. Fortunately, however, the surface of thesound was like a polished floor and there were no swells to submergeher.

  Over-side to starboard he could see the dim black outlines of mountainsslipping past, but where lay Halibut Bay or what distance remained tobe covered he could but vaguely guess.

  In these circumstances the wait became almost unbearable. The raceseemed hours long, the miles stretched into leagues, and with everymoment of suspense the ship sank lower. The end came unexpectedly.There was a sudden startled outcry as the Nebraska struck for a secondtime that night. She rose slightly, rolled and bumped, grated briefly,then came to rest.

  Captain Brennan shouted from the bridge:

  "Fill your life-boats, Mr. James, and lower away carefully."

  A cheer rose from the huddled passengers.

  The boiler-room was still dry, it seemed, for the incandescent lightsburned without a flicker, even after the grimy oilers and stokers hadcome pouring up on deck.

  O'Neil climbed to the bridge. "Is this Halibut Bay?" he asked CaptainJohnny.

  "It is. But we're piled up on the reef outside. She may hold fast--Ihope so, for there's deep water astern, and if she slips off she'll godown."

  "I'd like to save my horses," said the younger man, wistfully. Throughall the strain of the past half-hour or more his uppermost thought hadbeen for them. But Brennan had no sympathy for such sentiments.

  "Hell's bells!" he exclaimed. "Don't talk of horses while we've gotwomen and children aboard." He hastened away to assist in transferringhis passengers.

  Instead of following, O'Neil turned and went below. He found that thewater was knee-deep on the port side of the deck where his animals werequartered, which showed that the ship had listed heavily. He judgedthat she must be much deeper by the head then he had imagined, and thather nose was crushed in among the rocks. Until she settled at thestern, therefore, the case was not quite hopeless.

  His appearance, the sound of his voice, were the signals for a chorusof eager whinnies and a great stamping of hoofs. Heads were thrusttoward him from the stalls, alert ears were pricked forward, satinmuzzles rubbed against him as he calmed their terror. This blind trustmade the man's throat tighten achingly. He loved animals as he lovedchildren, and above all he cared for horses. He understood them, hespoke their language as nearly as any human can be said to do so.Quivering muscles relaxed beneath his soothing palm; he called them byname and they answered with gentle twitching lips against his cheek.Some of them even began to eat and switch their tails contentedly.

  He cursed aloud and made his way down the sloping deck to the squareiron door, or port, through which he had loaded them. But he found thatit was jammed, or held fast by the pressure outside, and after a fewmoments' work in water above his knees he climbed to the starboardside. Here the entrance was obstructed by a huge pile of baled hay andgrain in sacks. It would be no easy task to clear it away, and he fellto work with desperate energy, for the ship was slowly changing herlevel. Her stern, which had been riding high, was filling; the seastole in upon him silently. It crept up toward him until the horses,stabled on the lower side, were belly-deep in it. Their distresscommunicated itself to the others. O'Neil knew that his position mightprove perilous if the hulk should slip backward off the reef, yet hecontinued to toil, hurling heavy sacks behind him, bundling awkwardbales out of the way, until his hands were bleeding and his musclesached. He was perspiring furiously; the commotion around him washorrible. Then abruptly the lights went out, leaving him in utterblackness; the last fading yellow gleam was photographed briefly uponhis retina.

  Tears mingled with the sweat that drained down his cheeks as he felthis way slowly out of the place, splashing, stumbling, gropinguncertainly. A horse screamed in a loud, horribly human note, and heshuddered. He was sobbing curses as he emerged into the cool open airon the forward deck.

  His eyes were accustomed to the darkness now, and he could seesomething of his surroundings. He noted numerous lights out on theplacid bosom of the bay, evidently lanterns on the life-boats, and heheard distant voices. He swept the moisture from his face; then with astart he realized his situation. He listened intently; his eyes rovedback along the boat-deck; there was no doubt about it--the ship wasdeserted. Stepping to the rail, he observed how low the Nebraska layand also that her bow was higher than her stern. From somewhere beneathhis feet came a muffled grinding and a movement which told him that theship was seeking a more comfortable berth. He recalled stories ofexplosions and of the boiling eddies which sometimes accompany sinkinghulls. Turning, he scrambled up to the cabin-deck and ran swiftlytoward his stateroom.