"God have mercy on their souls!" 'Frisco Kid said solemnly.
Joe was too horrified at the suddenness of the catastrophe to utter a sound.
"Sailed her clean under, and, with the ballast she carried, went straight to bottom," 'Frisco Kid gasped. Then, turning to their own pressing need, he said: "Now we 've got to look out for ourselves. The back of the storm broke in that puff, but the sea 'll kick up worse yet as the wind eases down. Lend a hand and hang on with the other. We 've got to get her head-on."
Together, knives in hand, they crawled forward to where the pounding wreckage hampered the boat sorely. 'Frisco Kid took the lead in the ticklish work, but Joe obeyed orders like a veteran. Every minute or two the bow was swept by the sea, and they were pounded and buffeted about like a pair of shuttlecocks. First the main portion of the wreckage was securely fastened to the forward bitts; then, breathless and gasping, more often under the water than out, they cut and hacked at the tangle of halyards, sheets, stays, and tackles. The cockpit was taking water rapidly, and it was a race between swamping and completing the task. At last, however, everything stood clear save the lee rigging. 'Frisco Kid slashed the lanyards. The storm did the rest. The Dazzler drifted swiftly to leeward of the wreckage till the strain on the line fast to the forward bitts jerked her bow into place and she ducked dead into the eye of the wind and sea.
Pausing only for a cheer at the success of their undertaking, the two lads raced aft, where the cockpit was half full and the dunnage of the cabin all afloat. With a couple of buckets procured from the stern lockers, they proceeded to fling the water overboard. It was heartbreaking work, for many a barrelful was flung back upon them again; but they persevered, and when night fell the Dazzler, bobbing merrily at her sea-anchor, could boast that her pumps sucked once more. As 'Frisco Kid had said, the backbone of the storm was broken, though the wind had veered to the west, where it still blew stiffly.
"If she holds," 'Frisco Kid said, referring to the breeze, "we 'll drift to the California coast sometime to-morrow. Nothing to do now but wait."
They said little, oppressed by the loss of their comrades and overcome with exhaustion, preferring to huddle against each other for the sake of warmth and companionship. It was a miserable night, and they shivered constantly from the cold. Nothing dry was to be obtained aboard, food, blankets, everything being soaked with the salt water. Sometimes they dozed; but these intervals were short and harassing, for it seemed each took turn in waking with such sudden starts as to rouse the other.
At last day broke, and they looked about. Wind and sea had dropped considerably, and there was no question as to the safety of the Dazzler. The coast was nearer than they had expected, its cliffs showing dark and forbidding in the gray of dawn. But with the rising of the sun they could see the yellow beaches, flanked by the white surf, and beyond—it seemed too good to be true—the clustering houses and smoking chimneys of a town.
"Santa Cruz!" 'Frisco Kid cried, "and no chance of being wrecked in the surf!"
"Then the safe is safe?" Joe queried.
"Safe! I should say so. It ain't much of a sheltered harbor for large vessels, but with this breeze we 'll run right up the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Then there 's a little lake like, and a boat-house. Water smooth as glass and hardly over your head. You see, I was down here once before, with Red Nelson. Come on. We 'll be in in time for breakfast."
Bringing to light some spare coils of rope from the lockers, he put a clove-hitch on the standing part of the sea-anchor hawser, and carried the new running-line aft, making it fast to the stern bitts. Then he cast off from the forward bitts. The Dazzler swung off into the trough, completed the evolution, and pointed her nose toward shore. A couple of spare oars from below, and as many water-soaked blankets, sufficed to make a jury-mast and sail. When this was in place, Joe cast loose from the wreckage, which was now towing astern, while 'Frisco Kid took the tiller.
JOE AND HIS FATHER
"How 's that?" cried 'Frisco Kid, as he finished making the Dazzler fast fore and aft, and sat down on the stringpiece of the tiny wharf. "What 'll we do next, captain?"
Joe looked up in quick surprise. "Why—I—what 's the matter?"
"Well, ain't you captain now? Have n't we reached land? I 'm crew from now on, ain't I? What 's your orders?"
Joe caught the spirit of it. "Pipe all hands for breakfast—that is—wait a minute."
Diving below, he possessed himself of the money he had stowed away in his bundle when he came aboard. Then he locked the cabin door, and they went uptown in search of a restaurant. Over the breakfast Joe planned the next move, and, when they had done, communicated it to 'Frisco Kid.
In response to his inquiry, the cashier told him when the morning train started for San Francisco. He glanced at the clock.
"Just time to catch it," he said to 'Frisco Kid. "Keep the cabin doors locked, and don't let anybody come aboard. Here 's money. Eat at the restaurants. Dry your blankets and sleep in the cockpit. I 'll be back to-morrow. And don't let anybody into that cabin. Good-by."
With a hasty hand-grip, he sped down the street to the depot. The conductor looked at him with surprise when he punched his ticket. And well he might, for it was not the custom of his passengers to travel in sea-boots and sou'westers. But Joe did not mind. He did not even notice. He had bought a paper and was absorbed in its contents. Before long his eyes caught an interesting paragraph:
SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN LOST
The tug Sea Queen, chartered by Bronson & Tate, has returned from a fruitless cruise outside the Heads. No news of value could be obtained concerning the pirates who so daringly carried off their safe at San Andreas last Tuesday night. The lighthouse-keeper at the Farralones mentions having sighted the two sloops Wednesday morning, clawing offshore in the teeth of the gale. It is supposed by shipping men that they perished in the storm with, their ill-gotten treasure. Rumor has it that, in addition to the ten thousand dollars in gold, the safe contained papers of great importance.
When Joe had read this he felt a great relief. It was evident no one had been killed at San Andreas the night of the robbery, else there would have been some comment on it in the paper. Nor, if they had had any clue to his own whereabouts, would they have omitted such a striking bit of information.
At the depot in San Francisco the curious onlookers were surprised to see a boy clad conspicuously in sea-boots and sou'wester hail a cab and dash away. But Joe was in a hurry. He knew his father's hours, and was fearful lest he should not catch him before he went to lunch.
The office-boy scowled at him when he pushed open the door and asked to see Mr. Bronson; nor could the head clerk, when summoned by this disreputable intruder, recognize him.
"Don't you know me, Mr. Willis?"
Mr. Willis looked a second time. "Why, it 's Joe Bronson! Of all things under the sun, where did you drop from? Go right in. Your father 's in there."
Mr. Bronson stopped dictating to his stenographer and looked up. "Hello! Where have you been?" he said.
"To sea," Joe answered demurely, not sure of just what kind of a reception he was to get, and fingering his sou'wester nervously.
"Short trip, eh? How did you make out?"
"Oh, so-so." He had caught the twinkle in his father's eye and knew that it was all clear sailing. "Not so bad—er—that is, considering."
"Well, not exactly that; rather, it might have been worse, while it could n't have been better."
"That 's interesting. Sit down." Then, turning to the stenographer: "You may go, Mr. Brown, and—hum!—I won't need you any more to-day."
It was all Joe could do to keep from crying, so kindly and naturally had his father received him, making him feel at once as if not the slightest thing uncommon had occurred. It seemed as if he had just returned from a vacation, or, man-grown, had come back from some business trip.
"Now go ahead, Joe. You were speaking to me a moment ago in conundrums, and you have aroused my curiosity to a most uncomfortable degree."
Whereupon Joe sat down and told what had happened—all that had happened—from Monday night to that very moment. Each little incident he related,—every detail,—not forgetting his conversations with 'Frisco Kid nor his plans concerning him. His face flushed and he was carried away with the excitement of the narrative, while Mr. Bronson was almost as eager, urging him on whenever he slackened his pace, but otherwise remaining silent.
"So you see," Joe concluded, "it could n't possibly have turned out any better."
"Ah, well," Mr. Bronson deliberated judiciously, "it may be so, and then again it may not."
"I don't see it." Joe felt sharp disappointment at his father's qualified approval. It seemed to him that the return of the safe merited something stronger.
That Mr. Bronson fully comprehended the way Joe felt about it was clearly in evidence, for he went on: "As to the matter of the safe, all hail to you, Joe! Credit, and plenty of it, is your due. Mr. Tate and myself have already spent five hundred dollars in attempting to recover it. So important was it that we have also offered five thousand dollars reward, and but this morning were considering the advisability of increasing the amount. But, my son,"—Mr. Bronson stood up, resting a hand affectionately on his boy's shoulder,—"there are certain things in this world which are of still greater importance than gold, or papers which represent what gold may buy. How about yourself? That 's the point. Will you sell the best possibilities of your life right now for a million dollars?"
Joe shook his head.
"As I said, that 's the point. A human life the money of the world cannot buy; nor can it redeem one which is misspent; nor can it make full and complete and beautiful a life which is dwarfed and warped and ugly. How about yourself? What is to be the effect of all these strange adventures on your life—your life, Joe? Are you going to pick yourself up to-morrow and try it over again? or the next day? or the day after? Do you understand? Why, Joe, do you think for one moment that I would place against the best value of my son's life the paltry value of a safe? And can I say, until time has told me, whether this trip of yours could not possibly have been better? Such an experience is as potent for evil as for good. One dollar is exactly like another—there are many in the world: but no Joe is like my Joe, nor can there be any others in the world to take his place. Don't you see, Joe? Don't you understand?"
Mr. Bronson's voice broke slightly, and the next instant Joe was sobbing as though his heart would break. He had never understood this father of his before, and he knew now the pain he must have caused him, to say nothing of his mother and sister. But the four stirring days he had lived had given him a clearer view of the world and humanity, and he had always possessed the power of putting his thoughts into speech; so he spoke of these things and the lessons he had learned—the conclusions he had drawn from his conversations with 'Frisco Kid, from his intercourse with French Pete, from the graphic picture he retained of the Reindeer and Red Nelson as they wallowed in the trough beneath him. And Mr. Bronson listened and, in turn, understood.
"But what of 'Frisco Kid, father?" Joe asked when he had finished.
"Hum! there seems to be a great deal of promise in the boy, from what you say of him." Mr. Bronson hid the twinkle in his eye this time. "And, I must confess, he seems perfectly capable of shifting for himself."
"Sir?" Joe could not believe his ears.
"Let us see, then. He is at present entitled to the half of five thousand dollars, the other half of which belongs to you. It was you two who preserved the safe from the bottom of the Pacific, and if you only had waited a little longer, Mr. Tate and myself would have increased the reward."
"Oh!" Joe caught a glimmering of the light. "Part of that is easily arranged. I simply refuse to take my half. As to the other—that is n't exactly what 'Frisco Kid desires. He wants friends—and—and—though you did n't say so, they are far higher than money, nor can money buy them. He wants friends and a chance for an education, not twenty-five hundred dollars."
"Don't you think it would be better for him to choose for himself?"
"Ah, no. That 's all arranged."
"Yes, sir. He 's captain on sea, and I 'm captain on land. So he 's under my charge now."
"Then you have the power of attorney for him in the present negotiations? Good. I 'll make you a proposition. The twenty-five hundred dollars shall be held in trust by me, on his demand at any time. We 'll settle about yours afterward. Then he shall be put on probation for, say, a year—in our office. You can either coach him in his studies, for I am confident now that you will be up in yours hereafter, or he can attend night-school. And after that, if he comes through his period of probation with flying colors, I 'll give him the same opportunities for an education that you possess. It all depends on himself. And now, Mr. Attorney, what have you to say to my offer in the interests of your client?"
"That I close with it at once."
Father and son shook hands.
"And what are you going to do now, Joe?"
"Send a telegram to 'Frisco Kid first, and then hurry home."
"Then wait a minute till I call up San Andreas and tell Mr. Tate the good news, and then I 'll go with you."
"Mr. Willis," Mr. Bronson said as they left the outer office, "the San Andreas safe is recovered, and we 'll all take a holiday. Kindly tell the clerks that they are free for the rest of the day. And I say," he called back as they entered the elevator, "don't forget the office-boy."