Gregory wondered himself. Then a plan began to form in his brain, suggested no doubt by Mr. Dupont's jest about him carrying the cooperative idea far enough to include the consumer. Why not? Fish were being retailed at almost prohibitive figures. And the markets claimed they were dumping them. Somebody was profiteering. Who was it? Certainly not himself. He was barely able to get enough from the dealers to pay express.
The idea grew as he walked along the street. He decided to take up, with Dickie Lang, the matter of establishing a cooperative service-market and selling direct to the consumer.
In mid-afternoon he found himself again among the jobbers. But the few he had not called upon the day previous, appeared even less interested in his proposition. As he came out of the Pacific's establishment, he brushed against a heavy-set man with gray hair, who was just going in. Excusing himself for his awkwardness, he glanced at the stranger's face. It was Silvanus Rock, of Legonia.
Gregory passed on. Rock apparently had not recognized him. Yet surely he was not mistaken in the man's identity. The flabby face with its sagging folds of pink skin, the snake-like eyes and the long Roman nose could not have been the inheritance of any other than the magnate of Legonia. And yet, what business could Rock have with the jobbers? Gregory wondered as he walked up-town to get a box of candy for Aunt Mary and Dickie Lang. While he made his purchase, his mind was filled with his meeting with Rock. In some vague way he began to associate Rock's presence in the jobbing district with the failure of the dealers to become interested in his solicitation. When he reached the office of Winfield & Camby at four o'clock, the matter still filled his mind.
"Mr. Hawkins just stepped out," Mr. Dupont informed him. Then the manager cleared his throat and beckoned Gregory to his private office. "It sometimes happens," he began, when the door closed, "that we are forced to change our plans, owing to an unexpected event. Since you were here this morning, I feel that what has happened in the interim, warrants us in our decision. In view of that, I wish to say that for the present at least, we will not send Mr. Dalton to visit your cannery."
Mr. Dupont shoved an evening Times across his desk and pointed to a marked item that appeared therein.
"That will explain for itself," he said.
RIOT AMONG THE FISHERMEN AT LEGONIA
This afternoon when the foreign fishermen were peaceably engaged with their seine, they were brutally attacked by a number of ex-soldiers and sailors employed by the Legonia Fish Cannery, and driven from the beach.
Gregory read no further.
"It's a lie, Mr. Dupont," he said hotly. "My men do not pick fights. A few nights ago the alien fishermen endeavored to crowd them off the beach and they——"
Mr. Dupont interrupted with a peremptory wave of his hand.
"You may be right," he said. "But I'm not interested. Whatever the merits of the case are, the fact remains that you are mixed up in a labor brawl with foreigners. As I stated to you this morning, we are conservative and until you get matters adjusted amicably with your competitors, we do not care to go into your proposition further."
He rose at once, showing the interview was at an end. Gregory followed him to the door. In the outside office he found his friend waiting. Hawkins, clad in outing clothes, was smiling broadly. The smile, however, quickly disappeared as he caught sight of his friend's face.
"Anything the matter?" he asked.
Gregory walked with him to the street before replying. Then he bought a copy of The Times and the two men read the account of the fight with the aliens.
"What of that?" Hawkins queried. "Your men licked them, didn't they?"
"Yes. But it cost me my chance with Winfield & Camby. Mr. Dupont called the whole thing off."
"The devil he did!"
Hawkins' smile returned.
"Why, the old fool," he ejaculated. "Can't he see that this will only be publicity for your brands. Why, darn his crinkled old hide, I'll show him. And I'll bet I'll have him eating out of your hand in less than a week."
He glanced curiously at the paper.
"Regular correspondence," he muttered, as he noticed the date-line of the news-item. "That means it comes from the little paper down there. What did you ever do to Tommy Black?"
Gregory shook his head blankly.
"I don't even know who he is," he answered.
"He seems to know you all right," he answered. Then he explained: "Black is the editor of The Legonia Star. A man by the name of Rock owns it."
PLANS FOR A SHOW-DOWN
Shall the control of our fisheries pass into foreign hands?
Riot among Legonia fishermen raises interesting question. Ex-service men contest forcibly with aliens for freedom of the seas. Show-down expected in the near future.
"How does that strike you?" Hawkins grinned and shoved the copy of The Times forward as "Exhibit A" for publicity. "Notice the date line," he exclaimed. "From our own correspondent."
Kenneth Gregory read the news item carefully before replying. First came a true account of the fight with Mascola's men on the beach which had ended in the decisive victory for the service men. Followed, in chronological order, a review of past interferences suffered by the American fishermen at the hands of the foreigners. And lastly, glowingly outlined, came his plans for meeting the opposition by a cooperative organization of one hundred per cent. bona-fide Americans. The article concluded:
The public will watch with a great deal of interest the outcome of Mr. Gregory's fight to regain control of a lost industry in local waters. Should the young cannery owner succeed, it will mean much to the people of Port Angeles in reducing the high cost of living. For Mr. Gregory has already under way, comprehensive plans for supplying the public with fresh fish at a greatly reduced price, through his system of establishing cooperative markets and dealing direct with the consumer.
Gregory's face was radiant with satisfaction.
"You're there on that kind of stuff, Bill," he exclaimed, gripping Hawkins by the hand. "You surely put it over in great shape."
"Fell down on one thing," he observed. "The city editor blue-penciled my direct reference to your brands of canned stuff. Claimed it was slapping the ad man right in the face. Say, I'll tell you what to do," he went on. "Let me write you up some good ads for your stuff and shoot them in right away to the advertising department. That will put you in strong with the paper and I can 'dead-head' a lot more dope through."
Gregory gave Hawkins carte blanche.
As Hawkins set to work, Dickie Lang entered.
"Light haul all around," she announced. "The albacore are heading out. Looks as if we were going to have a little weather."
Gregory's expression changed quickly at her news.
"That means we've got to follow them up," he said. "We've got to have the fish. We've been putting it over on Mascola for the past few weeks and we can't fall down now. The jobbers are watching us and we've got to show them we can deliver the goods. In addition to that I am going to enter into quite an extensive advertising campaign and when it begins to bear its fruit, we've got to have the stuff on hand to come across. There are a lot of people looking this way right now and we've got to make good."
"That's the way to talk," encouraged Hawkins. Then he smiled at the girl and nodded toward his friend. "Notice how I'm bringing him alive," he exclaimed. "He's quit 'shooting nickels' now. He's raised his sights already."
They all smiled at Hawkins' enthusiasm. Then the girl's face became serious.
"You know what going out to sea means," she said quietly. "It just about means Diablo. That's where Mascola's boats went this morning and I shouldn't wonder if they struck it out there. When they get back we'll know."
"We've got to know before that," Gregory averred. "Why not send a bunch of the boys over right away?"
Dickie shook her head with great emphasis.
"Haven't the gear," she objected. "It's liable to be nasty around the island at this time of the year. We're shy on deep-sea hooks and heavy line."
"We'll get it." Gregory turned to the telephone. "I'll order it by express," he announced, as he put in his call for the ship-chandlers at Port Angeles. While he waited for the call, he addressed Dickie Lang. "We can send some over right away, can't we?"
She considered. Then nodded acquiescence. "The Pelican and the Curlew are outfitted for that kind of work," she stated. "We could get them moving in half an hour. They could go over and do the scouting. They both have the wireless, you know."
Gregory made up his mind at once.
"Will you give me a list of the stuff you need?" he asked. "As soon as I get this call through I'll come out and we'll get them started. We ought to get the stuff we need to-night, or early to-morrow. Then the rest can clear." His face brightened. "I'll have the Richard to-morrow," he said. "Bronson's going to bring her back and stay two or three days to put me on to the ropes. We'll get him to take us to Diablo."
"Count me in on that too," exclaimed Hawkins. "I've got it coming. Haven't had a breath of salt air since I've been here."
The girl completed her list of the required gear as the telephone rang. Gregory turned to the instrument and gave the order.
"What's that?" he concluded. "You'll have to have the cash? Thirty days is customary on that kind of stuff, isn't it? Well, I've got to have it.—All right, go ahead and draw on me if that's the way you feel about it.—But send the stuff." He turned wrathfully to the girl. "The robbers," he said. "They have me in a hole and they know it. We have to have that gear right away though Heaven only knows where I'm going to raise the money to pay for it."
The problem of raising approximately three thousand in cash before ten o'clock the following morning presented its difficulties. Gregory decided to tackle the matter without delay.
"I'll try the local bank," he declared. "And give old Rock a chance to make good on his promise."
Dickie strove to dissuade him.
"Keep in the clear of that old hypocrite," she cautioned. "If he lets you have it at all it will be only with strings which will tangle you up later on."
Gregory was on his way to the door.
"A man needing money like I do at present has to get it where he can," he answered. "Will you see to getting the Pelican and Curlew started as soon as possible?"
She promised and he hurried out.
Gregory found Rock in his private office at the bank and was welcomed warmly by the financier.
"Growing more like your father every day you live," was the president's greeting. "How happy we would all be if he could have been spared to this community."
Gregory lost no time in preliminaries.
"You told me if I ever got into a tight place, you'd see me through," he began.
Rock nodded and the corners of his thick lips turned downward.
"I sincerely trust you have met with no business reverses, my young friend," he purred. "However, if such is the case, feel perfectly free to make me your confidant."
Briefly Gregory stated his case, to which the old man listened attentively. When he had concluded, Rock's eyes were on the ceiling, and his soft white hands caressed the desk noiselessly.
"If you will accept a word of advice from a man old enough to be your father, and one who is entirely disinterested in you, save in a personal way as the son of my old friend, you will——"
Gregory cut short his rambling.
"Stay away from Diablo Island."
Rock's advice carried a mandatory note which was not lost upon his auditor.
"Why?" Gregory asked quickly.
Rock searched the far corners of the room for the answer to the question. At length he replied: "It is an extremely dangerous place, particularly at this season of the year. Storms are prevalent about Diablo and by making the venture at this time, you place not only your capital in jeopardy, but the lives of your men as well."
Gregory realized he had little time for argument.
"I've asked for a loan of three thousand for ten days, Mr. Rock. It's up to you. What will you do for me?"
A slight frown passed over the bank president's forehead at the young man's insistence. For a moment he gave his entire attention to the blotter on the desk. Then he said:
"I will let you have the money you desire on one condition. That you confine your operations to coastal waters. Your security will then be comparatively safe and——"
"You forget, Mr. Rock, that I am not taking my cannery with me to El Diablo," Gregory broke in. "Don't you regard the plant and the canned product on the floor as sufficient security for a temporary loan of three thousand dollars?"
Rock nodded. After a moment's silence he said: "Then there is another thing. This is a time to speak plainly. Otherwise I would make no mention of it. But as you are seeking a favor at the hands of this bank, it is my duty to inform you that we do not wish to countenance or encourage, in any way, your policy of stirring up trouble with our alien population."
Gregory rose angrily.
"There is no use of my taking up your time or mine any further," he said. "My business is my own. And while we're on the subject I'll say that I intend to run it as I please. Neither myself nor my men are seeking trouble with Mascola's foreigners. But I'll tell you here and now that we are prepared to fight, if need be, for what the law says we can have. We want only a square deal, Mr. Rock, and you can take it from me we are going to get it."
Walking out of the bank president's office Gregory observed a familiar figure leaning idly against one of the grated wickets. And though the man was dressed in the extreme of fashion, he had no difficulty in recognizing him. It was Leo Bandrist, the lord of El Diablo. Gregory returned the islander's nod and hurried to the street. As he walked to the cannery he found it hard to concentrate his thoughts on the problem of raising the desired funds. Rock was a royal old hypocrite. Of that he was sure now. The financier had used his influence among the jobbers to some purpose. He had knocked him through his local paper. And now he was telling him, almost threatening him, to stay away from El Diablo. His mind flashed again to Bandrist. What brought the man to Rock's bank? Business, no doubt. But what kind? Was Rock backing Bandrist? Were the two men in cahoots with Mascola's gang? If so, for what purpose?
The questions multiplied with astonishing rapidity. When Gregory arrived at the cannery he had decided upon a definite course of action. He would wire Farnsworth, the estate's attorney, to sell his bonds at a sacrifice if need be. They should bring enough, added to his own personal account, to pay for the equipment he desired. After that, he'd go to Diablo and call Rock's bluff, whatever it was.
It was late that evening before he received an answer from the lawyer. Farnsworth had regarded the instructions of his client as sheer idiocy and had taken no pains to conceal the fact. But he had sold the bonds and was forwarding the money. Close upon the message from the attorney came one from the ship-chandlers at Port Angeles. They were shipping the gear in the early morning. Gregory heaved two great sighs of relief which adequately expressed his feelings at the contents of the two respective messages.
The day had ended better than he anticipated. The Pelican and the Curlew were at Diablo by now. He should hear from them any minute. While he was waiting there was much that he could do. He took up his personal bank-book and began to balance it. A low rap at the office-door interrupted him.
Dickie Lang entered with McCoy and Hawkins.
"We've been out for a walk," she announced. "Thought we'd stop in and see if you'd heard anything from the boys yet."
"Not yet," Gregory answered. "I'm going to keep a man at the key all night. We should have heard before this. They got a fairly early start and with good weather should have hit the island in time to get a good line on things before dark. I just got a wire from the ship-chandlers and they are shipping the stuff the first thing in the morning."
As the talk turned to Diablo, Hawkins listened attentively though he said but little. At length the party rose to go.
As Gregory was bidding them good night one of the radio men entered with a message. Gregory glanced at the meaningless jumble of words and shook his head.
"Too much for me," he announced. "I haven't savvied the code out well enough yet to read this one."
The operator again took the message.
"Haven't been using it long," he answered. "But one of the boys dropped on to a little rig on one of the cliffs a little way from here, so we thought it was just as well to be careful."
Gregory nodded and the company drew closer to the operator as he bent over his work. When the message was decoded it read:
Off Northwest Harbor El Diablo
From: Launch Pelican.
Albacore tuna running close shore this end. Slipped round Mascola's boats by running round south shore. His fleet off Hell-Hole Isthmus. Spotted them hour ago. Don't think he's wise we're here. Can load up fleet if they get here quick and can dodge by Mascola. What shall we do?
The message was signed by Tom Howard.
Dickie beamed at the news.
"I know right where he is," she said. "When you get them that close in at this time of the year it means they are running in bunches and there's pretty apt to be some weather."
She glanced at her watch.
"Not much sleep for me to-night," she announced. "I've got a lot to do before morning. Guess I'll be on my way. It will mean work to clear by to-morrow noon and every minute is going to count."
"It will mean a scrap with Mascola too, unless I miss my guess," put in McCoy. "When he finds we are hitting into his territory there's liable to be trouble."
Hawkins' eye brightened at the possibility. "That will mean a story for me," he contributed.
"It will mean more than all that," Gregory said slowly. "It means the thing we need most—money. Fish in car-load lots. A chance to show the jobbers we know our business. It may mean a show-down with Mascola. And if it does, we've got to be ready when it comes."
THE GRAY GHOST
Ready to clear for Diablo at last! Gregory's lieutenants had done their work well. The gear from the ship-chandlers had arrived on the morning train. Also the remittance from Farnsworth. Dickie Lang had outfitted the fishing-boats in record time. Crews of experienced men were selected and supplies taken aboard. One by one the launches were carefully examined by the girl and despatched singly on a course mapped out by herself, a course which would bring them to Northwest Harbor without skirting the shore of the island. The auxiliary supply boat, the last of the fleet to go, had cleared but an hour before. For the time being Dickie Lang was content to rest upon her oars.
Bronson was ready. In response to a night letter from Gregory he had arrived on time with the Richard, bringing with him a full equipment of heavy gear. Tuned to the minute, the speed-craft waited impatiently at the cannery float for the signal to be under way.
Jack McCoy was ready. Everything within the cannery was shipshape to handle a big run. Depleted supplies had been hastily ordered. Necessary additions to the floor force had been made and the house-manager was in possession of detailed instructions for the running of the plant during the owner's absence.
Even Hawkins was ready. The advertisements had been written and checked over before being despatched to The Times to "farm out" among the other city dailies. In addition to that, the newspaperman had arranged to communicate with his paper via the cannery wireless should he be fortunate enough to secure a big story.
Gregory himself was ready. The details of the embarkation had been covered to the minutest detail. A plan had been formulated in the early morning hours for the outwitting of Mascola at El Diablo, a plan to which Dickie Lang had given her hearty approbation before it was sent to Howard over the radio.
Gregory turned for a last word with McCoy before giving the order which would send the Richard to sea.
"We'll keep in close touch, Jack," he said. "We'll expect you to do the same. This is Friday. If we send in a lot of fish to-morrow it will mean a straight run over Sunday. Keep a man at the key day and night. And don't forget that we are low on cash. If you get any orders that look at all good, grab them until we can get 'out of the woods.' We're going up against a mighty stiff proposition. It's make or break, and the sooner we get down to cases with Mascola the better it will be."
He put out his hand and McCoy's fingers tightened over his. Then McCoy watched him go down the gangway and take his place beside Dickie Lang in the Richard.
* * * * *
"You don't mean to tell me that's Diablo?"
Hawkins wiped his dripping face and stared at the misty blot on the purpling horizon.
Gregory and Dickie Lang looked up from their scrutiny of the small clock on the Richard's dash and smiled:
"Two hours and ten minutes to here," Gregory announced. "We can make it easy in two hours and a half, and we've been bucking a head wind and sea all the way over. If the Fuor d'Italia can do this well, Mascola will certainly have to show me."
Bronson smiled but made no comment.
As the island loomed across their track, Dickie directed a change of course.
"Cut in close to that big cliff on the northeast corner and we'll work our way along close in to the shore."
Bronson complied. Then the girl turned to Gregory.
"Get my idea?" she asked.
"You want to see if Mascola has fallen for our scheme," Gregory replied.
"Exactly. We'll cruise by his fleet and lay to by the Pelican. Then we'll find out if he's spotted the Curlew yet. If he hasn't, the boys can get in in the dark and 'chum' the fish. By that time we won't care what Mascola does."
The passing of a few minutes brought them in sight of the alien fleet grouped closely together off Black Point.
"They've shifted," announced the girl. "Tom's message said they were off the Hell-Hole."
Gregory said nothing but as they drew nearer he exclaimed: "Look! They've got the Pelican sewed up tighter than a drum. Looks like Mascola hasn't tumbled on to the other boat yet."
Dickie searched the darkening water intently. Then she observed: "I don't see Mascola's boat anywhere. Maybe he's cruising the island."
Throttling to the speed of an ordinary fishing craft they approached the fleet and dodged skilfully among the boats in the direction of the Pelican.
Tom Howard had but little news. He had put to sea from Northwest Harbor according to orders. Had circled the island and appeared off the east coast at daybreak as if en route from the mainland. Had stumbled on to a small school of albacore off Black Point and started fishing. Mascola's fleet had moved down from Hell-Hole in the early morning. Had "fenced" him. The Italian's men had been drinking freely all day and had refused to give him sea-way to get out. Of Mascola himself he had seen but little. The Italian boss had been down in the morning but had paid little attention to his men. After boarding but one of his boats he had returned with the Fuor d'Italia in the direction of the Hell-Hole Isthmus. He had not been back since.
"Is the Curlew still off Northwest Harbor?" inquired Gregory.
"Don't know. Haven't tried to reach them. Didn't want to wise these fellows we had anybody else over here. 'Sparks' says they've got a rig round here somewhere and have been trying to hail somebody all day. We've been getting a few messages from the boys. Most of them are off the other side of the island now, waitin' for dark to pass the harbor."
Gregory and Dickie were elated to find the fleet so near. At the same time both looked worried at the mention of another wireless equipment in the immediate vicinity.
"I'll bet they're trying to reach that shore-set the boys spotted the other day," hazarded the girl. She looked at her watch and glanced toward the towering peaks which cast their shadows far out into the water. "Well, if they are, we can't stop them," she observed. "What do you say we start along the north shore with an eye out for fish and Mascola? Maybe he's already nosing around Northwest Harbor."
Gregory agreed to the girl's suggestion.
"Running slowly will bring us up with the Curlew about dark," he said. "Let's go."
Climbing again into the Richard, Bronson threw in the clutch and the speed-craft zigzagged her way through the fishing fleet and headed away from Black Point. At the same time one of the faster of the alien boats detached itself from the others and trailed along in their wake.
"Better slip that fellow," advised the girl. "We don't want him tagging. If we keep well in he won't be able to see us long."
Gregory gave Bronson the necessary orders, and the Richard bounded away from her pursuer and raced into the shadows of the cliff. When they arrived at the point near the Hell-Hole Isthmus, the speed-craft motor began to miss and Bronson guided the Richard in the lea of the promontory and threw out an anchor.
"Good place to fix that right now," he said. "You see everything's new and I've been feeding too much oil. The plugs are all gummed up. 'Twon't take but a minute to clean them."
While he worked over the motor Gregory's eyes roamed shoreward to the cliffs. It was quite dark now and only the sound of the lapping waves betokened the presence of the jagged rocks which projected above the surface of the water near the shore. It was almost here he remembered suddenly that the Sea Gull had been wrecked. As he looked out into the darkness, he felt Dickie's fingers tighten on his arm.
"Look!" she cried. "What's that behind us?"
Gregory turned about to see the black waters to the sternward were rippled with sparkling threads of silver-white. From out the darkness came a swiftly moving gray shadow. One glance astern caused Bronson to slash the anchor-rope which held the Richard. Then he started the auxiliary motor and threw the speed-craft forward with a jerk. The same instant a long gray hull brushed by them and disappeared into the gloom as silently as she had come. Bronson whirled the Richard about, gazing intently after the departing stranger.
"A miss is as good as a mile," he observed. "If it hadn't been for the dual motor we'd have been out of luck."
"I wouldn't say so," Hawkins snapped. "A miss of a mile wouldn't give a man heart-failure. Lord, I'm weak as a cat."
Kenneth Gregory leaned closer and spoke in a voice which only the boatman could hear. Bronson put about at his words and muffling down, followed silently after the gray boat.
"Cut out your lights."
Bronson threw the switch at Gregory's command.
"It's against the law," he muttered, "but I reckon it's safer with a bird like that."
Soon the strange craft was again dimly visible, appearing like a gray blot in the darkness ahead. Off the Hell-Hole she turned shoreward and was lost to view.
"Tell him to stop the motor for a moment," whispered Dickie Lang.
When Bronson complied, the silence for the space of a few minutes was unbroken. Then from the little cove came the muffled cough of a high-speed motor.
"All right. Head out."
The Richard sped on her way at Gregory's command. Then he asked: "What did that sound like to you, Bronson?"
The boatman answered promptly: "That was the bird you're looking for. I've heard the Fuor d'Italia's exhaust too many times to guess wrong."
Dickie Lang nodded sagely in the darkness, while Bronson volunteered:
"I think I know the one that nearly run us down too. Running dark's her long suit." For a moment he hesitated, then he added: "She looked a whole lot like the Gray Ghost."
"Interesting, if true," muttered Hawkins, sliding nearer to the operator. Then he asked aloud: "Who's the Gray Ghost?"
Bronson noted the suppressed eagerness of the man's tone. Then he remembered that Hawkins was a newspaperman. Reporters were a nosey class as a rule. Perhaps it would be as well to keep still. After all, what did he, Bronson, know about the Gray Ghost? What did anybody really know about her, for that matter?
"The Gray Ghost is a fishing-boat," he said quietly, "that was built by Al Stevenson. She's bigger and quieter than the average. She's supposed to be about as fast for her size as any of them. I heard the other day she was owned by a fellow by the name of——" He stopped abruptly. "I can't remember the man's name," he concluded.
Hawkins knew Bronson was lying. Straightway he decided to find out what he could about the ownership of the Gray Ghost. Of the vessel herself, he had some knowledge though he gave no intimation that he had ever heard the name before.
"Mascola must own the Gray Ghost himself, the way he's sticking around her," observed Dickie Lang. "He must have been waiting in there for her or he'd have been scouting around before this."
"Tom said they were pretty well fished out down below," he contributed, "and Mascola hadn't given them a new location. He's evidently got something on his mind that's more important to him than fishing."
Bronson said nothing but smiled grimly in the darkness. Perhaps that wasn't such a wild guess, at that. But it was none of his business. His firm was building boats for the Italian, so why should he say anything?
The sky was dark overhead and a freshening breeze sprang up when they reached the tip of the island and headed shoreward. Rounding Devil's Point they came in full view of the glimmering lights of the fishing fleet.
"Looks like home," commented Dickie. "Wonder how long the boys have been there." She checked up the lights rapidly, then announced: "They're all there but one. Probably the supply-boat. She isn't due yet. That's pretty quick work I'd say."
Hailing the first of his fishing-boats, they learned that the voyage from the mainland had been without incident. The albacore were thick about the island. They were keeping the fish around with live bait. All of the fishermen predicted a record haul.
Proceeding to the Curlew, Bronson tied the Richard alongside and the party from the speed-launch climbed aboard. Then the girl conferred with Gregory and plans for the night were formulated. The fleet would lay at anchor with every motor in instant readiness to get the respective vessels under way at a given signal. The men would alternate on an anchor watch and keep the fish "chummed" up during the night. Those who were off duty would get their needed rest and make no unnecessary noise. No vessel was to move from her anchorage without permission from the Curlew. Fishing would begin at daybreak.
With preparations completed for the night, Gregory's party made themselves comfortable aboard the Curlew. A message was despatched to the Pelican instructing Howard to join the fleet shortly after midnight. And the cannery was notified of the safe arrival of the boats at the island.
After supper Hawkins clung tenaciously to Bronson and the two men retired to the bow and conversed in low tones. Gregory sat with Dickie Lang in the stern and for some time puffed at his pipe in silence. The yellow rays which issued from the fresneled glass light on the mast-head fell full upon the girl's figure and Gregory saw that her eyes were fixed on the dark outlines of the coast.
"What do you make of Mascola?"
Dickie shook her head. "I don't know," she answered. "He has me guessing right now. I can't understand why he's been hanging round Hell-Hole all day and hasn't tumbled on to the Curlew. He seems to have forgotten his boats entirely."
"I have an idea he has," Gregory answered. "Sometimes I think that perhaps fishing is only a small part of Mascola's business. We both know he hasn't made much with his boats in the last few months, yet Bronson says he's having twenty new launches built at Port Angeles. That will run into a big bunch of money at present prices."
"You're not the only one who has ideas to-night," Dickie said softly. "Being around Diablo always makes me think—and wonder."
"What?" Gregory encouraged.
The girl moved closer to his side.
"I'm wondering about the same things our fathers wondered about," she said. As Gregory said nothing, she went on hurriedly: "Did you ever stop to think that if Mascola and that gray boat lay in at Hell-Hole that they are doing it with Bandrist's permission? That means that whatever they are doing there, Bandrist is in on it." She paused abruptly and her eyes rested full on Gregory's face. "I have an idea that old Rock is in on it, too," she said. "He and Bandrist are pretty thick evidently, and Rock always did stick up for Mascola. And all three of them are doing all they can against us."
"And you think it is something else than fishing?" Gregory prompted.
"Yes, I'm sure of it. I think our fathers had the same idea. I believe they came over here alone that night to find out."
"Do you think——" Gregory began.
But the girl answered his unfinished question.
"Yes," she said slowly, "I think they found out. That is why they never got out alive."
"But they were wrecked and drowned."
Dickie shook her head slowly. "I have never thought so," she answered in a half-whisper. "Listen," she went on, "boats like the Sea Gull don't wreck themselves and a better man with a launch than my dad never lived. Men like him don't drown easily. He was a regular fish in the water and had got out of many a smash-up before."
"But they were drowned. The coroner himself told me——"
"You're right," she interrupted. "Any man can be drowned. How long do you suppose you and Tom Howard would have lasted on the island if you had insisted on staying the night we were over here?"
Gregory considered her words carefully. In the light of past events, they held some truth. But if Bill Lang and his father had met with foul play, why were the bodies ever recovered? Why would it not have been simpler to have made way with them entirely? He put the question and Dickie answered promptly:
"That would have caused a search of the island. Just what they do not want, if they are up to anything crooked over here. With the bodies recovered and the boat smashed, it had all the appearance of a natural wreck."
"Why have you never said anything like this before?"
Dickie hesitated. Then she answered simply. "Because I never felt as if I knew you well enough. I have no proof. It's only a girl's idea, and one I'm afraid you would have taken but little stock in."
"You're mistaken," Gregory replied. "I would have. And perhaps by now we could have had the proof."
"No. We've done just right. If we had pretended we suspected anything they would have gone to cover. There's only one way to get to the bottom of this thing and that is to beat Mascola at his own game. Make him think that fish are the only thing in the world we care for around Diablo. And while we're fishing over here, keep our eyes open and learn what we can."
Before Gregory could reply the silence of the night was broken by the sharp exhaust of a high-speed motor. Looking in the direction of the sound, he saw a flash of red pierce the darkness and heard the girl's voice close to his ear.
"I guess we're due to find out something now. Here comes Mascola."
Together they watched the red light brighten. Then came a flash of green as the oncoming launch swerved and sped toward them. In a few moments Mascola had located the flag-ship and the Fuor d'Italia lay snorting angrily by the Richard's side.
"I want to see the boss," demanded the Italian.
Gregory leaned over the rail and focused his flash-light on Mascola.
"What do you want?" he called.
Mascola blinked under the bright rays. Seated beside him was another man who leaned closer into the shadow of the fishing-boat.
"I want you to move," Mascola said thickly. "My men were here first. Plenty of fish at San Anselmo. Many as here. If you go to the other island there will be no trouble."
"And if we stay?"
Mascola's passenger looked up quickly at Gregory's words, and the light fell full upon his face.
It was Bandrist.
"I hope you will not decide to stay," he said slowly. "As I have told you before, I'm not seeking trouble on this island. Mascola's men have been drinking too much and are ugly. A supply-boat arrived to-day from the mainland with too much liquor. I am having some difficulty with my own men. I hope you will help us avoid trouble."
Gregory answered them at once.
"If there is any trouble, it will be of your making. The ocean is free to all. We are interfering with no one's rights. We're here. The fish are here. And here we're going to stay."
"I'll show you, you——"
Bandrist checked the Italian's angry outburst by placing a hand firmly upon his arm.
"I'm sorry," he began. But Mascola's open muffler drowned his words and the Fuor d'Italia leaped away into the darkness.
"Mascola's drunk," commented Dickie, looking after them. "Otherwise, he would never have talked like that. It's a wonder Bandrist ever mixed up with him." She turned about and confronted Gregory. Behind him were Hawkins, Bronson and the crew of the Curlew. "This means we've got to move," she exclaimed. "We'd better round up the bunch, give them their positions and start fishing."
Gregory and the girl climbed into the Richard, calling to Bronson to follow.
"Tell 'Sparks' to send word to Howard to beat it out with the Pelican right away," Gregory instructed Hawkins. Then he exclaimed to Dickie as she took her seat beside him: "It looks like Mascola was spoiling for a fight. And if he is I'll say he's due for the surprise of his life."
STRICTLY ON THE DEFENSIVE
The Richard was in motion before the echoes of the Fuor d'Italia's gatlin-like exhaust had died away. Directing Bronson to take them alongside each of the vessels which composed the fleet, Gregory and Dickie Lang boarded the fishing vessels and conferred with the respective captains. Gregory's instructions were phrased with military directness.
Every launch was assigned a definite position which it was to assume at once and hold at all cost. The fleet was divided into three divisions. The main unit, comprising the vessels equipped with the live-bait tanks, were to begin "chumming" at once within a given area. As soon as practicable, fishing was to commence. The second division, made up for the most part of the heavier, Diesel-motored vessels, was to lay to in V formation about the fishermen to protect them from interference in the direction from which the fish were running. The remainder of the fleet were to stand by as a rearguard, cover the extreme flanks and maintain a reserve.
Before taking leave of each craft as it left to go to its new position, Gregory briefly addressed the crew: "Get this, fellows. We're here to fish. Not to fight. If trouble comes, let Mascola start it. If he does, I expect you to hold your positions. Keep in the clear and use no firearms. Remember, what you do to-night, binds me. Play safe. Keep cool. But get the fish."
To a man, the ex-sailors understood the seriousness of the situation, though there were some who argued against the poor fighting policy of letting the other fellow hit the first blow. The radical element, however, were soon quieted by the older and more conservative men, and all agreed to stay in the clear so "nobody could hang anything on the boss."
Tom Howard had arrived with the Pelican when Gregory and Dickie Lang returned to the Curlew. The fisherman brought the news that the men of the alien fleet were in a high state of intoxication. Moreover, they appeared to be completely out of live bait.
Dickie smiled grimly. "That means that if Mascola does send them down here, he'll just be looking for trouble. If they haven't the bait, all they can do will be to try to steal our school like they did before, and I guess this time they'll find they're out of luck."
"Met Mascola on my way down," Howard announced. "He was running wide-open, heading straight for Black Point."
Gregory frowned. "It's hard to tell what Mascola will do to-night," he said.
The Pelican was despatched at once to take her position as the leader of the front rank. As the Curlew made ready to get under way, Hawkins appeared at the rail.
"Don't forget the press," he called. "If I'm going to do this affair justice I've got to be at the ringside."
Gregory moved nearer to Bronson and allowed the newspaperman to accompany the party on the speed-craft. Then the Richard sped away to see that all the boats were in their proper places. Arriving in the center of the fishing area, Dickie Lang watched the men "chumming" the fish and suggested they throw out their lines at once.
"I don't like the looks of the weather," she confided to Gregory. "It feels like a blow. I'm going to have a look at the glass on the Snipe." Gregory noticed that the girl appeared worried when she returned to the Richard. "Dropping fast," she announced. "It may be just a squall or it may be a real blow. This is no place for us in either case. We must rush the fishing all we can."
Gregory agreed and gave the necessary orders. From the sides of the Snipe the lines flashed over the rail. On the instant the albacore began to strike. As the Richard bounded away to notify the other boats of the order to hurry operations, the girl observed:
"The fish are heading close in all right. They're running from something. Now is the time to hit it hard. Oughtn't to take long the way they're starting. I must see that the boys have all the barbs off the hooks. We have to work fast. And when the blow comes, we'll have to get clear of the Diablo coast."
The second tour of the fishing fleet was only partly completed when Dickie directed Gregory's gaze in the direction of the point off Northwest Harbor.
"Here they come," she cried. "Mascola's looking for trouble just as I told you."
Gregory surveyed the bobbing lights in silence as they moved nearer; saw the red-lights blur and fade into green as the vessels changed direction and headed shoreward; noted one twinkling light running far in advance of its fellows; saw it swerve and double again into red and green. That meant that the Fuor d'Italia was bearing down upon them. Directing Bronson to intercept the Italian, Gregory explained:
"I want to give Mascola another chance. We're not looking for trouble. He can lay to the seaward but he's got to give us sea-way to get out if it roughens up."
The Richard swung wide and came abreast the Fuor d'Italia. Then it came to Mascola that the strange craft on his left had some speed. Above the roar of his own exhaust he heard his name called in a peremptory hail. The hot blood surged to his face and he stepped on the throttle. He had no time to talk. He must spot the position of the cannery boats and give his men instructions how to break through.
The Fuor d'Italia bounded away with a sullen roar. But before Mascola could circle in the direction of the lights of the fleet, the Richard was again on his rail. Cursing to himself, the Italian advanced his spark and pressed hard on the throttle. But though he gained a few feet on his pursuer, he knew that he dared not try to make the turn. His boat would "turn turtle" or be cut in two by the craft behind.
On the two boats sped through the darkness. The lights of the fishing fleet flashed by them like the gleam of switch-lights, seen from an express train. Mascola's anger mounted. His men were waiting for orders and he had seen nothing of the enemy's formation. A plan formed quickly in his brain. It was dangerous of course. But the liquor gave him courage. Removing one hand from the wheel, he extended it toward the switch-board.
"He doesn't dare make the turn at this speed," Dickie shouted in Gregory's ear. "Tell Bronson to watch him close when he doubles to come back. He'll head into the swell, to the starboard."
Gregory was giving the boatman the message when he felt Dickie grasp his arm.
"He's switched off his lights," she cried. "He's going to try to dodge us, running dark."
Bronson had already slackened speed at sight of the disappearing lights ahead. Then he put the Richard hard over, and the speed-craft swerved with a jerk which left her passengers crowding close against one another.
"Give her the gun," shouted Gregory. "Head back. Don't let him slip us."
As the boatman complied and the Richard began to lift her hull from the sea, the dark waters ahead were brightened by a phosphorescent flash. Directly across their course lay the Fuor d'Italia. Twisting the steering wheel with only the slightest pressure of his fingers to avoid turning the Richard over, Bronson opened the cut-out and stepped hard on the throttle. The speed-craft dipped, then raised and bumped the Fuor d'Italia beam to beam as she raced by.
The shock of the collision threw Mascola half from his seat and had a decidedly sobering effect upon his senses. He had noted his boat tremble at the impact and crowd away from the stranger; had felt the straining of her timbers. Now he noticed that his motor was missing badly. A loose wire probably. He made haste to repair the trouble and switched on his running lights. The Fuor d'Italia was too light to take chances of roughing it in the dark. As he worked, he heard a voice hail him.
"What do you want?" he demanded angrily. "Damn you, you hit my boat."
The lights of the returning motor-boat drew alongside before Gregory answered:
"Listen, Mascola. If you're looking for trouble, this is the place to find it. If you're not, you can move out to sea and get as many fish as we are. We'll not bother you. There's plenty of albacore over here to-night for everybody. If you try to break through us, it will be up to you."
Mascola's anger came in a torrent of Italian words. Then he composed himself sufficiently to speak in broken English: "This Mr. Bandrist's island. He tell me I fish here. He say you go. You stay, you like trouble. My men like fight any time."
"Go to it, then," Gregory answered quietly. "And when you see your friend Bandrist, tell him for me that he hasn't bought Diablo. He's only leasing the land. If he has any more claim to the water than we have, he'll have to show us."
Mascola completed his repairs, started his motor and raced away in the direction of his fleet with the Richard running close at his side. But when he came abreast of the cannery fishing-boats, he made no effort to head in.
"He don't want to rough it any more with this one," Bronson commented. "I reckon when he looks over his boat it'll mean a job for the shop putting in a few ribs."
Mascola returned to his fleet, his cheeks burning with rage. In the first preliminary skirmish with the enemy, he realized he had been beaten. He had found out nothing of value. Had damaged his boat too, no doubt. Well, he'd make somebody pay for it before morning. Circling his boats, he gave orders for an immediate advance in the direction of the cannery fleet.
Kenneth Gregory looked after the departing lights of the Fuor d'Italia.
"Score one for the invaders of Bandrist's island," he said grimly. "Mascola didn't learn much on his reconnoitering expedition, except that we had a better boat than his." Then he turned to Bronson. "Take us up to the other end," he instructed. "I want to tell the boys to keep as close in as they can so Mascola's boats will have to skirt the reef to get by."
When they arrived at the indicated spot and the V broadened according to orders, the lights of the alien fleet could be discerned moving toward them.
"Here they come," announced Dickie Lang. "Looks as if they were going to try to crowd in from the north side."
Gregory smiled. "That's just what I want them to do," he answered. "One of the benefits of reconnoitering is to get an idea of just what you're going into. If Mascola had taken a good look, he wouldn't have come that way."
BATTLE OF NORTHWEST HARBOR
Convoyed by his fishing fleet, Mascola came steadily on. Cruising to the seaward of the cannery boats he circled, laid to and critically surveyed the bobbing lights in the narrow channel which was flanked on both sides by saw-toothed reefs. The fish were coming from the north and west. Doubtless the American fisherman already had them well "chummed up" with their live bait. He would force an entrance among the cannery boats if they did not give way and take their school. He had done it before. It was simple enough. Directing his boats to follow, he led them on.
Kenneth Gregory stood in the bow of the Pelican with a megaphone and directed the position of the boats which made up his first line of defense. His plan of keeping Mascola away from his fishing fleet was nothing more or less than just straight football formation, with an augmented line to withstand the opposing pressure. The Pelican formed the center of the wedge. To her right and left followed the heavy Diesel-motored vessels with the Curlew and Snipe guarding the extreme ends. Behind the first line came the reserve which closely covered the fishing-boats cruising the center area. Every boat was at its proper station, awaiting the signal from the Pelican.
It came with Gregory's word to Howard: "All right, Tom. Let's go."
He stood at Howard's side as the fisherman whistled for sea-way and moved his vessel forward with the fleet flanking him astern in V formation. Mascola's boats gave no heed to the signal save to draw closer together and slacken speed as they entered the narrow channel.
Again the cannery boats shrieked a warning and the wedge narrowed with the waterway until only the bare width of a boat separated the beams of the defending vessels. Dead ahead, and only a few boat-lengths away, twinkled the lights of the alien fleet. Gregory grasped the rail of the engine-house and braced himself for the shock. The next instant the foremost of Mascola's boats struck the Pelican a glancing blow on the bow.
The heavy fishing-boat quivered from stem to stern from the impact. Then the powerful Diesel engine came into play. The drunken skipper of the Lura felt his craft being shunted to the side. Before he could gather his wits together, another American boat brushed his outside rail and crowded him forcibly against the craft he had endeavored to ram. Caught between the heavy hulls of the Pelican and Albatross, the Lura grated, beam to beam, her timbers creaking and twisting from the strain, her propeller churning the water in a vain effort to break through the tong-like grip of the two boats which disputed her passage.
The drunken crew of the Lura surged to the rail with wild cries of rage. The air was filled with flying missiles. Came the sharp snap of breaking glass and the dull thud of heavy objects hurled from the alien craft to the deck of the Pelican.
"Stay under cover," Gregory commanded the crew. "Stand by if they try to board."
A flying bit of scrap-iron gashed his forehead and caused the blood to trickle over his eyes. He wiped it away with his hand and turned to observe the progress of the other vessels.
The engagement was now general. Mascola's boats were trying to smash their way through. But the V was as yet unbroken. That, he could tell by the solid formation of the boats in reserve. They had not found it necessary to separate.
The night was enlivened with the shrill cries of the aliens. Gregory noticed that there was congestion of lights on his left wing. He reflected suddenly that that was where the Curlew was stationed. And Dickie Lang was on the Curlew. Why had the girl persisted in her determination to take an active part in the conflict? Perhaps she might be already wounded. Hit by a piece of flying iron or a wine-bottle.
"How about it?" Howard's voice recalled him to his plan of battle.
Gregory looked hastily along his front line. "All right," he exclaimed. "Go to it."
The Pelican's whistle shrieked two shrill blasts in reply, the signal for every man at the wheel to go full ahead and put his respective craft hard over.
Mascola cursed volubly at the increasing jumble of his boats. They had already lost their way and were only tending to raise a further barrier to his entrance to the fleet. If he rammed, he must ram his own boats as well as those of the enemy. It flashed over his heated brain that the American had chosen a difficult position for him to break through. The narrowness of the sea-way prevented him from engaging them in mass formation. Then he became conscious of another fact as two sharp whistles sounded above the uproar. His lead boats were being crowded back against their fellows with a twisting movement which was carrying them in the direction of the reef. The channel had been too narrow to break through the solid wall of Diesels. A puff of wind from the southeast helped Mascola to make up his mind. Directing a summary withdrawal, he sped away toward the reef to pilot his boats again to safety from the dangerous shore.
Gregory directed the pivot movement of the cannery wedge until the last of the alien fleet had fled from the channel. In the first preliminary engagement, the enemy had been beaten back. At what cost he must find out at once. As he turned about to signal the Richard, a voice which he recognized as Hawkins', came to him from the darkness astern.
"Bronson's knocked out."
Leaving Howard to supervise the return of the advance line to their original positions, Gregory instructed the sailors to launch a dory over the rail of the Pelican and was rowed away in the direction of the Richard.
Hawkins had but little to tell. The Richard had been plying about according to orders, to report any break in the wedge. As she skirted the right end close to the Snipe, some one had thrown a bottle from the nearest enemy craft. It had struck Bronson in the head. The Richard had drifted backward. Hawkins had thrown out an anchor. That was all. Gregory examined Bronson while Hawkins was speaking. The man was not badly injured. But his loss would be a serious one. Without the speed-boat, Gregory would be greatly handicapped. He set his jaw grimly in the darkness. He could not afford to tie up the Richard. He would run her himself. Directing Hawkins to pull the anchor, he slid into Bronson's seat and focused the rays of his flash-light on the speed-boat's starting mechanism.
"Are you going to try to run her?" Hawkins inquired as he tugged at the hook.
"I am going to run her. Bronson showed me how. It's taking some chance of course. But not so much as tying her up. We've got to have the Richard, Bill. That's all there is to it."
Gregory started the motor and, proceeding at quarter-speed, set off to take Bronson to the Curlew. By so doing, he realized, he could accomplish a dual purpose, find out about the safety of Dickie Lang and leave the boatman in her care. That, he reflected, would give her a safer though more inactive role.
The girl greeted him from the rail of the Curlew. Not a man had been scratched aboard her vessel. Her craft had held the pivot and twisted two of the alien boats until they bumped the reef. A man had been reported injured on the Falcon.
Placing Bronson in the dory, Gregory directed the skiff to be pulled aboard the Curlew. Then he climbed over the rail with Hawkins.
"Bronson was hurt by a flying bottle," he explained. "Will you look after him? I've got to round up the boys and see what's doing."
"You're hurt yourself," Dickie observed as the rays of the cabin lamp fell upon Gregory's face.
"Just a scratch," he said quickly. "If you'll look out for Bronson I'll be off."
Dickie Lang whirled about. "Look out for this man, Jack. See you later, Jones. I'm going with Mr. Gregory."
Reluctantly Gregory consented to allow the girl to accompany him in the Richard. An instant later they were on their way to round up the fleet.
Injuries were few among the crews of the defending vessels. Bruises and cuts summed up the physical damage done by Mascola's men. One of the boats was leaking, but Sorenson was holding the water easily with the pumps. The Falcon's shaft was sprung but the propeller was still turning. To a man, the various captains reported that their men had obeyed instructions to the letter. No acts of violence had as yet been committed by any of the American crews. The ex-sailors, though chafing at their inaction, had assumed the defensive throughout.
The next thing was to arrange to oppose Mascola's next move.
"Whatever he does, he's got to do mighty quick," observed Dickie as the Richard nosed her way among the albacore fishermen. "It's roughing up in the last five minutes and the glass is falling all the time."
"There's only one thing he can do, as near as I can figure," Gregory answered. "And that's to come down the harbor channel and hit us from the stern. If he does that," he added quickly, "we'll have to be careful not to block the sea-way leading into the harbor. My idea is to move farther up. Then if the blow does come, we can go out with the wind and sea through the north channel."
"That's our best bet, unless it's a nor'wester," she agreed. "We've got to keep a way out clear or Mascola will crowd us on the rocks."
The captains of the fishing-boats reported their craft to be better than half laden when the Richard arrived alongside. The fish were still running strong. In another hour, without interference, they might be loaded. At Gregory's direction the albacore fishermen began cruising toward the north channel.
The next thing to do was to marshal the fleet to withstand Mascola's attack from the rear. Owing to the extreme wideness of the waterway, the Italian's boats would now have a better chance. The V must be broadened by the boats hitherto held in reserve. They must be brought up at once. The rising wind and the roughening sea, added to Gregory's inexperience in handling the speed-boat, rendered the mobilization of the cannery fleet not only slow, but extremely hazardous as well.
Before his left end defense was complete, Mascola was bearing down upon his center.
A FIGHTING CHANCE
Mascola's boats advanced warily, spreading out and covering off the defending fleet as they came. It would be a boat to boat, man to man fight in the darkness.
Head-on, the opposing fleets collided with a crash which twisted their keels and racked their timbers. Lights merged together and became stationary as hull locked with hull in a grinding embrace. The alien crews swarmed to the decks and leaped across the rail upon the American sailors who surged forward to meet them. Fists flashed in the darkness. Men met hand to hand. The night was filled with wild cries, the trampling of heavy feet, the thud of contact of wood meeting wood and flesh meeting flesh. From the center of the struggling mass of men and boats came a sudden flare of light which dispelled the dark shadows cast athwart the vessels and brought into bold relief the struggling figures of the men who battled on the decks.
The cry was taken up by every throat and echoed down the line. It came to Kenneth Gregory on the extreme end of the left wing where he had been directing the defense of his weakened quarter, by a counter-flanking movement. A boat afire! And right in the center of his fleet! When the tank exploded hundreds of gallons of burning distillate would flood the waters. But he dared not think that far. Whirling the Richard about, and circling behind his line of boats he dashed away to face the new peril.
The crew of the Florence abandoned the attack at the first cry and surged to the hold to fight the conflagration. A gasoline stove, carelessly left burning by one of that vessel's drunken crew, had been overturned by the shock of collision, and had fired the bilge. Fanned by the rising winds, the flames were licking at the oil-soaked timbers and spreading rapidly toward the tanks in the bow.
The alien crew of the Florence fled in a panic of fear. Leaping to the rail they flung themselves to the deck of a neighboring craft which was already backing away from the ill-fated vessel. From all sides, friend and foe alike drew away from the blazing fishing craft. For the time being the sound of conflict gave place to the rasp of reverse levers, hoarse cries of warning and the labored chug of heavy-duty motors going full astern. In the ever-widening cleared space about the ill-fated derelict the lurid waters were churned into a roseate foam by the frenzied lashing of the heavy propellers of the fishing craft as their masters sought to clear the dangerous area.
As the Richard sped on in the direction of the ever-brightening glare, Gregory's mind kept pace with the rapid pulsing of the high-speed motor. He must tow the blazing vessel clear of the fleet before the tanks exploded.
Dodging among the retreating fishermen he grazed the Curlew's hull and plunged into the open space. Warning cries sounded above the roar of the flames but he did not hear them. His plan, formed on the instant, must be put into execution at once. If it failed, the speed of the Richard would carry Dickie to a place of safety. It was a fighting chance. That was all.
Swinging the Richard about, he drove straight for the Florence.
"Take the wheel, and stand by," he cried to the girl. "If the tank goes, run."
He leaped from his seat as the Richard breasted the blazing hull and Dickie found herself gripping the big steering wheel before she could utter a protest. Gregory was already in the stern of the Richard. Grasping the stern-anchor chain of the speed-launch, he caught the wire-stays of the Florence and pulled himself aboard, dragging the chain after him. For an instant he clung to the rail, shielding his face with his arms. Then he scrambled on deck.
Holding the Richard's stern close to the Florence's bow, Dickie Lang saw Gregory running across the deck. Saw his reeling figure silhouetted against the white glare of the blazing cabin-house. Heard the rattle of the heavy anchor chain of the alien fishing-boat. Keeping the Richard in place with an effort against the wind and chop, she waited. He expected her to stand by.
His hair singed by the heat, with blistering face and burning lungs, Gregory dropped by the snubbing-post in the bow and tugged at the heavy chain and knotted it about the block. Then he made the free end fast to the chain of the Richard. Running to the rail he threw his body over and hung by his hands, searching the air with his feet. Then he felt the deck of the Richard beneath him.
Dickie Lang had stood by.
The next instant he was again at the wheel and the Richard lunged forward.
"Steady," cautioned the girl. "Don't take the slack so fast. Hard a port. Now kick your stern over. That's the stuff. Pay out. Now you've got her."
For an instant the Richard quivered with anger to find herself in leash by the fiery incubus at her stern. Then she settled doggedly to work and the two vessels began to gather way. To the right and left the fishing-boats scattered before them. The tanks of the blazing tow might explode at any minute. It was best to be in the clear. In the common fear of the new danger the contending factions drew apart, friend and foe uniting in the universal effort to gain a place of safety. The wind caught the blaze and fanned it upward in a solid sheet of flame which blistered the varnish of the Richard's stern-deck.
"Get down," Gregory shouted above the roar of the speed-boat's exhaust.
Dickie started to protest when she felt herself jerked roughly from the seat.
"There's nothing you can do now. Lie still. Keep your head covered." The tone was gruff, the words commanding, spoken by a man. A man who thought of the safety of others and placed it before his own. A man who was not afraid to take chances. Dickie's heart glowed with pride as she huddled in the Richard's cockpit. It was worth while to know a man like that.
Mascola watched the progress of the burning Florence from the deck of the Lura. His blood-shot eyes gleamed red in the glow from the burning vessel and the lust of destruction surged into his heart. He was losing one of his best boats. Somebody must pay.
In the light of the fire he saw the vessels of the defense scattered. Now would be his chance to crowd through to the fishing fleet. With the wind and sea at his back he would pile them up on the rocks. Jumping to the Fuor d'Italia he sped away to direct the attack upon the heavily laden fishing-boats.
Clear the fishing fleet and shunt the Florence to the rocks with the wind and current. For the space of a few seconds it was Gregory's only thought. The rising wind at his back was hot with the fevered breath of the burning tow. What did it matter if the heat was scorching his neck? Only a few boats remained ahead. Then he would be in the clear. If the tanks of the Florence exploded he must crawl to the stern and cut the tow-line. The crested waves began to slap angrily at the speed-boat's hull. Then the Richard's motor began to miss.
"She's all right. Keep down. I can——"
A muffled roar interrupted his words. The hull of the Florence bulged. A jet of flame mounted upward from the deck. The engine-house tottered and collapsed in a shower of glowing sparks which filled the air and rained down into the Richard's cockpit. A stream of burning oil surged up from the hull of the derelict and tumbled into the sea, blazing fiercely on the crest of the waves.
"Take the boat."
Before the girl could gain the wheel Gregory was fighting his way to the stern. As Dickie's fingers closed on the steering-wheel he was slashing at the rope spliced to the chain. With blistered hands and burning lungs he hacked at the tough strands of hemp with his pocket-knife. The threads of the line snapped and crinkled from the heat. The water about the speed-craft's stern was on fire. Tottering drunkenly, he bent low and held his breath. The rope was more than half severed. The threads were already parting from the strain. Then the knife slipped from his blistered fingers and fell into the water.
Mascola witnessed the explosion of the Florence's first oil tank with a grim smile. The vessel was already clear of the fleet. She could do no damage now save to the Richard and her crew. With his eyes fixed on the fire, Mascola prayed to his saints that the second and larger tank might explode before Gregory could sever the tow-line. Fascinated by the sight, he moved farther to windward and watched.
Kenneth Gregory's bleeding fingers tore at the straining fiber of the quivering line which bound the Richard to destruction. One by one the threads snapped and curled in the heat radiated from the burning vessel.
Dickie Lang huddled in the driver's seat and jerked the hull of the speed-craft frantically against the strain of the tow-line. For an instant death held them by a single strand. Then the line parted and the Richard leaped to safety. The cool rush of air revived Gregory's senses and he found himself leaning weakly against the coaming of the speed-boat. Then he heard the girl calling from the wheel.
"Mascola's broken through."
He gulped in the moist sea air and groped his way forward. Far astern the wreck burned fiercely, bringing into bold relief the frowning peaks which fringed the shore-line of El Diablo. As he caught at the rail for support he saw the flames leap skyward, blackened by smoke and bits of timber. The waves burned brightly about the settling hull. Then came the sound of the explosion of the Florence's second tank.
"Mascola's broken through. Can't you hear me? Are you hurt?"
Gregory staggered to the seat and dropped beside the girl.
"I'll be all right in a minute," he said. "Keep going. I can't see very well yet. You say he got through?"
"Yes. He's trying to crowd the fishing fleet to the rocks. Look!"
In the light that the burning vessel astern cast upon the waters ahead, Gregory saw a confused jumble of boats crowded close against the saw-toothed reef.
"Damn him!" he grated. "We'll beat him yet. Slow down. Give me the wheel."
Dickie relinquished the steering-wheel with reluctance.
"We ought to be putting to sea," she observed as a sudden gust of wind and rain assailed them. "This is a bad place to be caught napping."
Gregory's eyes glowed with the lust of battle. "No," he gritted. "We're going to stay and fight. Mascola's not going to win on a fluke if it costs me every boat I have."
In a frenzy of activity he threw the Richard wide open and sped away to gather his scattered boats for a flank attack upon the alien fleet.
Mascola was in high good humor. His boats were crowding the fishermen backward in the direction of the reef. Forced to the rocks they would have no chance in the face of the approaching storm. What was the loss of the Florence in comparison to the destruction of a dozen or more fully equipped fishing vessels, laden to the water-line with their valuable cargoes?
Repairing to the cabin of the Lura, the Italian refreshed himself with a drink. A shout from without brought him hurrying to the deck. Bearing down upon him at full speed came the cannery fleet. His vessels were broadside. They would strike him full on the beam. Cut his boats in two. Mascola shrieked out an order to put about and face the enemy. His captains sprang to their respective wheels and battled desperately among themselves for steerage way.
Then came the crash.
Skirting the mass of snapping grinding hulls, Gregory shot through with the Richard and came among the fishing-boats. Some were already grazing the reef. A line from the speed-craft pulled them again to safety and launched them around Mascola's rear. Fighting their way through the press of the alien craft they circled and renewed the attack from the opposite flank. Mascola's fleet was caught broadside between the Americans.
The din of the battle mingled with the roar of the wind. Again men met over the rail. Knives flashed in the sullen glare from the burning Florence. Pistol shots echoed above the tumult and the air was filled with flying splinters.
Slowly and inexorably Mascola's fleet was ground back. An alien craft, reaching the clear space to the rear of the battle line, turned hastily about and fled down the narrow channel leading to the sea. Another followed. Still another.
Mascola strove vainly with shouts and curses to stem the tide of his retreating vessels, but the boats brushed by him and continued on their way. Soon the exodus became a rout with hull scraping hull in the effort of the alien boats to gain sea-way in the channel.
In a few minutes the last of Mascola's fleet, leaking badly and settling low in the water, lumbered by with rapidly pulsing motor in the direction of Northwest Harbor.
"We beat him at his own game." Kenneth Gregory repeated the words again and again. Blood flowed from a jagged cut in his cheek. His face and hands were raw and blistered, but his eyes were shining with the light of victory.
In the shadow of the Pelican his arms closed about Dickie Lang and he drew her to him. "We beat him," he cried. "You, and the boys, and I."
The girl struggled for a moment, then lay passive in his arms. He was delirious from the fire and the battle. He did not know what he was doing. Freeing herself with an effort from his clinging arms she drew away.
"We must put to sea," she cried. "Before the storm breaks."
Gregory roused at her words and turned quickly away.
"Yes," he answered. "You're right. I forgot."
Within a few minutes the cannery fleet was heading down the main harbor channel in the direction of the open sea.
Then the storm broke. Battling desperately into the teeth of the gale, the fishing-boats plunged head-on into the curling waves. Lashing the sea into white-caps, the wind picked up the water and hurled it to the decks in great clouds of choking, blinding spray.
In a last dying flare the flames leaped upward from the charred hull of the Florence as she lay pillowed on the rocks. And in the feeble glow, only Hawkins, who was looking astern, saw the shadowy outline of a long gray boat nosing her way about the island.
The Gray Ghost was running before the storm.
THE BANKER AT THE HELM
Foot by foot down the storm-lashed, wind-swept channel the victorious cannery fleet doggedly fought its way from the Diablo coast and headed to sea.
"We've got to lay in at San Anselmo," Dickie Lang shouted to Gregory as she guided the Richard skilfully through the buffeting waves. "Some of the boats are pretty badly stove up. They're riding too low to try to make the mainland. We'd have to buck the storm all the way over. Best run before it as long as we can. Then we can gain the lea of the other island and head in at Cavalan and leave some of the boats there. May have to run a few of them on the beach. We ought to make the little harbor on the south shore of San Anselmo in a couple of hours."
Gregory agreed with some reluctance. When it came to seamanship he was perfectly willing to leave the management of his craft to Dickie Lang. The girl was familiar with the coast of the two islands and had fully demonstrated her ability to handle the Richard in a storm. Still the idea of running from Diablo rankled in his heart. It looked like quitting.
The girl's next words, however, made him feel a little better.
"There would be no use lying in at Northwest Harbor at Diablo," she was saying. "The anchorage is too small and Mascola's boats will overcrowd it. If you tried to beach anything there, you'd wreck it. At Cavalan we can check things up, transfer the fish if we have to and get them right out. We've beaten Mascola, hands down, so why should we care?"
It was well toward morning before the last of the cannery fleet staggered into the little harbor of Cavalan. Then came the first opportunity to reckon the cost of Mascola's defeat at Diablo.
Gregory's first thought was for the personnel of his fleet. In the fight with the alien fishermen several of his men had been injured, but as near as could be ascertained, none fatally. A number of men had been slashed by knives, but the injuries for the most part were only flesh wounds. There were many aching heads and bruised bodies. Two sailors and a fisherman had been grazed by bullets. One man's arm had been broken.
To a man the various crews made light of their injuries and proudly maintained that they had left their mark on many a dark-skinned member of Mascola's aliens.
Bronson had partly recovered and was anxiously inquiring concerning the behavior of the speed-craft in the storm.
While Gregory directed the transferring of the injured men to the better equipped launches, Dickie checked up the material damage inflicted upon the tonnage.
On the Curlew Gregory encountered Hawkins. The newspaper man was jubilant. The victory over the aliens was just what he needed. He had anticipated the outcome and had already sent out a full account of the struggle with the aliens over the radio. The people of Port Angeles would be reading it in a couple of hours.
As Hawkins assisted Gregory in caring for the needs of the men, the reporter hinted that he was on the trail of a bigger story which would make all his former journalistic efforts pale into insignificance. But when questioned concerning the specific nature of his scoop, Hawkins became extremely reticent.
Dickie Lang's report upon the condition of the fishing-boats added materially to the cost of the victory. Four of the craft had been jammed in the melee and were leaking badly. How they ever made port at all was a thing she could not understand. Three of the other vessels had sustained bent shafts and broken propeller blades. All the fleet were more or less battle-scarred but their defects could be remedied in the water. She had set the men to work already. There was a machine shop at Anacapa on the opposite side of the island and a marine railway large enough to take on the disabled craft. When the blow subsided, they could put in there for temporary repairs.
The girl's eyes glowed with happiness as she totaled the catch of the fishermen. Every boat was laden almost to its full capacity. With a storm coming on and in the face of a probable shortage of fish, the success of the night's work would reach a substantial figure.
"It's worth more than you know," put in Hawkins. "Wait until my yarn gets into print and I'll show you." He smiled broadly and put out his hand. "Then I want my rake-off, Cap. Gregory," he concluded.
"I won't forget you, Bill," Gregory was quick to answer. "Nor any one else. I knew the boys would stand by to a finish. They sure came across to-night."
He turned quickly to Dickie Lang. "When can we start out with the fish?" he asked.
"Figuring to go at daybreak," the girl answered. "Better send Jack a message right away so he can be ready for them. They'll have to buck the blow so it will be afternoon by the time they get over."
She looked out across the faintly graying waters where brightening lights began to appear from the shadowy hulls of the fishing-boats. Then she inhaled the air hungrily.
"Look," she exclaimed. "The boys are getting breakfast. Let's go over to the Snipe and tie in with them. They've got a man there from the regular navy who can surely cook."
Gregory and Hawkins welcomed the suggestion and a moment later they were speeding away to answer to the first call for breakfast.
In the lea of San Anselmo, sheltered from the storm in the land-locked little harbor of Cavalan, the American fleet rested from its labors. The sailors gathered on the decks and greeted the new day over plates piled high with crisp slices of bacon and fried eggs. The night had been long, fraught with danger and fatiguing toil; but work and worry had endured only for the night and joy came with the morning.
* * * * *
Silvanus Rock was nervous and ill-tempered. Consuming his third cup of strong black coffee, he rose from the breakfast table and walked to the French windows and glared out at the curling waves as they flung themselves upon the beach.
His devoted spouse gazed after him with a sigh. "Something is preying on father's mind," she whispered to De Lancy, the only son and heir to the Rock fortune. "He didn't sleep a wink last night."
De Lancy scowled. "That doesn't give him any license to take it out on me," he growled, as he pushed back his chair and lit a cigarette. "When I tried to interest him in that new racing car, he landed on me all in a heap and——"
His words were interrupted by the entrance of the maid.
"Some one to see Mr. Rock," she announced.
Rock whirled and hurried toward her. Then he caught a glimpse of the roughly garbed man who was standing by the desk in his den. Peters had arrived at last. The anxious lines deepened on Silvanus Rock's forehead and he made haste to join his visitor.
Mrs. Rock pursed her lips as she noticed the stranger. "I can not understand why your father persists in having such disreputable-looking men visit him in his home," she confided to her son.
De Lancy sluffed the cigarette ashes into his coffee cup, before replying. "Well, whoever the 'low-brow' is, here's hoping he'll put the old man in a better humor."
In his wish De Lancy was not disappointed. For a short time the visitor remained closeted with Rock in the capitalist's den. Then Rock escorted his guest to the door and De Lancy noticed that the old man had opened up some of his best cigars. It was a good sign.
Silvanus Rock entered the sun-room, all smiles.
"I believe I'll try some of those waffles, mother, if they are still handy," he exclaimed. "My headache's passed off and I'm feeling quite myself again." He beamed on his son. "And now, De Lancy, you were telling me about that new car. It seems to me like a pretty stiff price but I guess you might as well go ahead and order it."
When the bank president reached his office some time later after a visit to the Golden Rule Fish Cannery, he greeted his employees with effusive good-humor. Leaving orders that he was not to be disturbed by any one except Mr. Peters, he passed into his private office, dropped heavily into a chair and began to figure. His pudgy fingers trembled about the pen as he scratched on the pad before him. Then he tore the paper containing his calculations into little bits, tossed them into the waste-basket and smiled benignly. His latest business venture had succeeded far beyond his fondest expectations.
A tap came on his door and Mr. Peters again made his appearance.
Rock surveyed him anxiously. "No mistake I hope, Peters, in the good news," he quavered. "Everything's all right I trust."
Peters nodded and drew up a chair close to Rock's side. "This one's about the fishing-boats," he said in a low voice. "They got into a scrap with the American boats off Northwest Harbor. Bandrist says that Gregory's fleet won out. Mascola's lay in at the harbor. The Florence burned up and a lot of his other boats are pretty well shot. He couldn't stop the other fellows at all and they loaded up."
Rock frowned at the news.
"Well, well," he ejaculated. "That is bad. Though not of course as bad as it might be. No answer to that one, Peters."
A few moments later when the financier was again alone in his office, the cashier entered. "The credit man from the Canners' Supply Company is here," he announced. "He's asking for information about the Legonia Fish Cannery. Thought I'd better refer him to you."
Rock's thick lips closed grimly. "Show him in," he ordered, and bit savagely at his cigar.
Mr. Booker made his appearance at once. "We have a little account with the Legonia Fish Cannery," he began. "As it is some time past due we were beginning to get a little anxious. A word from you will put us straight."
"What's the amount of your claim?"
"Twelve hundred and thirty-five dollars."
The hopeful expression which had leaped to Rock's face gave place to one of gloom. Then he asked:
"What is the nature of your claim?"
"Machinery and the labor of installing," supplied Booker.
A gleam of hope entered Rock's beady eyes. "Between you and me, Mr. Booker," he said. "The Legonia Fish Cannery is pretty much involved at the present time. Their organization is one which might cause you some difficulty in securing the amount of your claim. If you care to assign it to me for collection I think I can handle the matter satisfactorily."
Booker did not notice the suppressed eagerness of the bank president's tone. He was new at the job, replacing the regular credit man who was away on his vacation. Perhaps it would be well to accept Mr. Rock's offer.
"What fee would you charge for your services?" he inquired warily.
Rock spread out his fat hands with a depreciatory gesture.
"Just between friends, Mr. Booker," he said warmly. "Your firm is too well-known by me to make even a nominal charge for so trifling a favor. Whatever I am able to do for you in this regard, is yours for the asking." Seeing that the credit man was wavering, Rock continued: "I am so sure that I can adjust the claim satisfactorily that if you desire I will give you my own personal check for the amount right away. Then you can forget the entire matter. Mr. Gregory is a personal friend of mine and though, as I say, his affairs are somewhat involved, I know that he will attend to the matter at once if approached in the right way."
"I'd better call on Mr. Gregory first," he said.
"That will be a hard matter," Rock interrupted. "Unless you care to go to the expense of making a trip to Diablo Island. Mr. Gregory left yesterday for a protracted stay in the deep-sea fishing grounds."
Booker considered. His firm was very desirous of having him return with the cash which was sore needed at the present time. Collecting the claim would be quite a feather in his cap. Rock's statements concerning the Fish Cannery, he noticed, were somewhat contradictory. But that was up to Rock. An account like this, the chances were, would not be worth much anyway. He could explain the whole matter to Dunham when he got back.
"All right, Mr. Rock," he said at length. "If you want to buy the claim outright, you can have it. I won't assign."
Rock reached for his check-book. A few moments later saw the deal closed. When Booker had left, Rock turned to the telephone. When he was in communication with the local judge, he said:
"I'd like to see you as soon as possible, Tom.—Yes, it's important.—All right. I'll be right down."
* * * * *
Somewhat in advance of Silvanus Rock's breakfast hour, Mr. Dupont entered the White Front Restaurant at Port Angeles and made his way toward his accustomed table in the sunlit alcove. His favorite waitress pulled out his chair and handed him his morning paper with a smile.