Clem Frobisher's Man-sized Job
By Allan Hawkwood*
THE scenario writer and partner to Clem Frobisher let out a whoop in response to Clem's proposal:
"Ed, let's take a vacation. I'm getting tired of making films. Let's go back to San Pedro, hire the old boat, and go fishing."
"Wow! Say, cap'n, I had that notion myself! Do you mean it?"
"You bet I mean it!" Clem rose, and strode up and down, frowning. "I can be cooped up only so long, Ed; then something has to bust. Now that we've finished that big five-reel film. I'm going to get back to salt water for a few days."
"Say, I can smell them fish now!" exclaimed Ed, in ecstasy. "An' the engine-room oil an' the ol' bilge-water stink—— Oh, golly! When do we go?"
"Catch a Pedro car, after lunch, charter the old Sadie, and off with us! Are you game?"
"Game?" The lanky Iowan grinned. "Say, cap'n, I'm so game that—that I'm growin' horns right now!"
The Frobisher Producing Company, with Clem as its head, and Ed Davis as partner and scenario writer, had been established in Easthampton for some months. Further, it had made good, largely because of Clem Frobisher's distinctive ability.
Before getting into the motion-picture business, Clem had run a fishing launch out of San Pedro, Ed being his engineer and chum. He had finally awakened to the fact that, despite his splendid body and brawn, he was backward in education; that ahead of him lay nothing but endless years of fishing and taking out tourists after tuna; and that, if he so chose, he could make something more of himself than this.
Clem had chosen promptly, had sold his launch to old Captain Saunders, and had started in to make the fight. Hampered financially, and by lack of prior education, he had, none the less, flung himself into the work with all his dogged, pugnacious will power. Ed Davis had accompanied him, largely for friendship's sake, but also with the dream of getting rich by writing plays.
Events had favored the chums. Ed had been victimized by a fraudulent motion-picture concern, whereupon Clem had pitched in and fought the owners; the result had been that he and Ed Davis owned the film company. Since that time the chums had worked it up, until now it was really a well-established business, with a golden future.
Naturally, therefore, they were both ready for a vacation. Clem quite forgot that a man, and particularly a young man, can never entirely get away from his past.
In the old days, Clem had had a reputation along the Pedro water front.
He had never been a hanger-on at bars, or a pool-room loafer; but nature, combined with hard work at sea, had endowed him with a vigorous body and an inclination to use his fists. Along the water front he had been thrown in contact with fishermen, bucko mates, and ordinary seamen of all nations, and when it came to fighting. Clem Frobisher's name was one to conjure with.
He had been whipped, of course. Yet he was locally known as the toughest young fellow to whip and the best fellow to stand beside in a scrap in all San Pedro; and it must be admitted that he did his best to justify the reputation. Not that he ever sought a fight, or forced one on the other chap, but when the fight came to him he went into it on the jump.
Clem had thought these old days gone forever; but, as he and Ed Davis climbed aboard their San Pedro car that afternoon Fate was waiting for them with a big stick.
"If Cap'n Saunders ain't here," said Ed Davis, "we'll get another boat?"
Clem nodded. Together they were walking up a side street of San Pedro to the little cottage where Captain Ezra Saunders, a retired veteran of many seas and seasons, was living on the income furnished him by two or three fishing boats, which were run by his son Tom, a young fellow a year or two older than Clem.
As they turned in at the gate of the vine-shaded cottage, however, they knew that the captain was at home from the foghorn voice which bellowed forth:
Ezra Saunders was a remarkable old man—though he was scarce sixty years of age. He was crippled by rheumatism, and had lost a leg at the knee from a shark bite, while his right arm had been paralyzed on his last voyage—when he had brought the schooner Mary Connors through a thousand miles of typhoon and had saved the lives of twenty men.
With all this, however, Clem had never seen the old man in gloomy mood. Ever was Captain Saunders smiling, optimistic, cheerful. As he and Ed Davis shook hands, and stepped up to the porch, where easy-chairs awaited them, the skipper bellowed to his wife, and Mrs. Saunders also came forth, to fold each of the visitors in a warm embrace.
"Well, well!" she exclaimed, wiping a tear from her ruddy cheeks. "Clem, if you ain't become a real city man! Say! Wouldn't your mother ha' been proud of you now!"
"I hope so," and Clem's brown eyes saddened a trifle. Since his mother's death Mrs. Saunders had been the only mother he had known—and that had been twelve summers past. Then he looked up, with his old cheerful smile. "I do believe you're getting thin!"
"Nonsense, you vagabone!" Mrs. Saunders, who weighed two hundred, and knew it, laughed through her welcoming tears. "Don't you flatter me, now! You boys ain't goin' to run right off, I hope? I been makin' pies to-day, and it seems to me you two rapscallions used to like Ma Saunders' pies right well before you got stuck up an' citified."
"Nothin' stuck up about me, 'cept my collar," said Ed Davis, grinning. "I been hankering for your pies, ma, ever since we left Pedro. You bet we're goin' to stay a while! How's Tom? Everybody well?"
Mrs. Saunders' ruddy face seemed to assume a slightly less cheerful expression.
"Yes," she said, turning to the door. "Tom's well. You folks set and talk while I see to them pies. They're in the oven now."
The door slammed. Clem looked at the captain's white-whiskered face and frowned.
"What's the matter, cap'n?" he asked directly. "You're looking kind of peaked around the gills. Rheumatism bad again?"
"No-o, I reckon not." Captain Saunders stroked his beard, and summoned up the ghost of his olden-days smile. "I'm hungerin' for salt water, I reckon."
"First time I ever knew you to lie to me, cap'n," said Clem quietly.
Captain Saunders flushed. He looked at Ed Davis, and then met Clem's accusing brown eyes. With fumbling fingers he began to till his pipe.
"Got a match, Clem?" he asked, with a little quaver in his voice.
Silently Clem produced the article in question. It began to seem as though something were very wrong, indeed. Ed Davis sat watching and listening, his grin gone. When the old skipper had lighted the pipe he leaned back and looked at Clem again.
"Well, Clem, I—I guess it was the first time. I ain't much used to lies. But sometimes lies has to come."
"Not between us, cap'n," and Clem's strong, bronzed face lightened. "What's the trouble?"
"You," said the old man, puffing out a huge cloud of smoke.
"I! What do you mean?"
Captain Saunders sighed. His weather-beaten face was set in lines of sadness.
"Clem, you allus been a mighty good boy, and I know it better'n most people. But when it comes to a scrap, you got a reputation around here like a down-east mate. I don't blame you none, o' course."
"Go on," urged Clem as the skipper paused. He wondered what was coming next.
"Well, Tom allus did admire you a heap, Clem, but since you been gone to the city Tom's kind o' got the notion that he's stepped into your lightin' boots, and he's gone around handin' out some fine lickin's. For a fact, Tom can fight like a streak."
"I guess he came by it honestly," was the reply, and Clem smiled slightly as he eyed the old skipper's broad shoulders.
"Well, mebbe so. But—say, Clem, you know Tom's a good boy, don't you?"
"You bet he is!" said Clem, frowning.
Inwardly, he commented otherwise. While he knew Tom Saunders pretty well, he also knew that Tom had companions who were not of the old Saunders strain.
"To tell the truth, Clem, Tom's been gettin' kind o' out o' hand." The skipper sighed again. "He's been comin' home drunk every once in a while, if you want it straight. He's tryin' to be cock o' the walk around here, like you used to be—but he ain't doing it your way, Clem."
Clem Frobisher felt as though a cold hand had touched him and had sent a shiver through him.
He was not responsible, of course; and, very likely, Tom Saunders was no worse than the average young fellow. But that was far from the point.
Clem loved the honest, simple, manly old skipper, and he loved Mrs. Saunders. Sooner than hurt them in any way he would have cut off his right hand.
Yet he knew that he had hurt them grievously, if unintentionally. He knew that Tom Saunders, misled by the wrong sort of friends, was heaping sorrows upon these kindly old parents of his largely by aspiring to walk in the tracks of Clem Frobisher. And Ezra Saunders had hit the nail on the head by saying that Tom was not doing it Clem's way.
"He's running the boats all right, I suppose?" queried Clem, with sinking heart.
"Oh, he 'tends to 'em well enough—nothin' extra. Clem, I wish to thunder these was the ol' days! I'd ship that boy A.B. under the toughest, hardest pair o' bucko mates ever stepped, an' I'd ship him around the Horn! When he got back, by glory, he'd either be dead or—or different! And"—the skipper sighed heavily—"I dunno's I'd give a durn which way it come out. I b'lieve it's breakin' Ma Saunders' heart—I do so!"
Suddenly Ed Davis leaned forward, his lean frame quivering with eagerness. For five minutes he spoke rapidly, excitedly, earnestly. Clem and the skipper listened in amazement, that changed, on Clem's part, to narrow-eyed calculation, and finally to swift resolve.
"That's enough!" he broke in suddenly. "Cap'n, we'll go out on a fishin' trip in the old Sadie, after supper to-night. If Tom ain't—hasn't—come home, I'll find him. And I promise you this, on my word of honor: If I don't change his lookout on life I'll never show my face here again!"
The old skipper gazed at Clem with dewy eyes.
"Clem," he said brokenly, "Clem, mebbe ye can. But, lad, it's a man-sized job! I reckon you've bit off more'n ye can chew—but Heaven bless ye, lad!"
"And now for ma's pies!" said Ed Davis, with a grin.
Clem Frobisher and his chum waved farewell to the old folks and walked toward Beacon Street. "The California evening was just closing down in all its swiftness.
"Ed, you go 'tend to the boat," directed Clem, at the next corner. "Have her gas tank full, and make sure the batteries are working right. I'll bring Tom."
"Mebbe I'd better go along with you," volunteered Ed.
"Maybe you'd better obey orders!" snapped Clem, his square-hewn face set in hard, determined lines. "Here! Take my coat with you!"
Peeling to his flannel shirt, he tossed his coat to Ed and turned away. The other looked after him with a sour grin.
"Want all the fun yourself, eh? All right, cap'n. You ain't goin' to shake me!"
Ed Davis followed his partner—at a very respectful distance.
Clem strode along in the gathering dusk. Crossing Beacon Street, he headed for a large pool room, where he was pretty certain to find his quarry.
"So he didn't come home for supper—hasn't come home all day!" he muttered savagely. "Huh! Claims to be walking in my shoes, does he? Huh!"
Clem turned in at the pool-room entrance, where a noisy phonograph was grinding out ragtime. About the rear of the place he saw a dozen young fellows grouped about a pool table, with a cloud of tobacco smoke hanging over them. With a curt nod to the proprietor, Clem strode back past the tables.
He soon picked out Tom Saunders, a big-boned, rather handsome fellow, three inches taller than Clem, and built along the same lines as the old skipper. But Tom's strong, even powerful, face was marred by the undeniable touch of liquor, and a cigarette trailed smoke between his fingers. His companions laughed uproariously at his jokes, and gave him an acclamation, which he seemed to enjoy hugely.
"Clem Frobisher, by golly!"
As the cry went up from the assembled fellows, all of whom knew Clem, Tom Saunders turned and came forward, cue in hand, with a quick smile of delight. He stretched out a big hand toward Clem.
"Hello, cap'n! Say, you old chump, where you been hidin'?"
Under Clem's steady, scornful gaze, his words of greeting faded. His hand fell to his side. He stared in blank amazement, while a portentous silence fell upon the others.
Then Clem made a sudden movement and plucked the cigarette from Tom's fingers. He tossed it into the corner.
"Tom," he said quietly, "I hear that you claim to be filling my shoes. How about it?"
"Hey?" Tom Saunders laid aside his billiard cue, still staring. "What you mean?"
"You heard me!" snarled Clem, watching the other with grim intentness.
"Say, what's eatin' you?" demanded Tom, in frowning wonder. "Ain't we allus been mighty good friends? What the devil are you talkin' about?"
"I'm talking about you," said Clem, as he took a forward step. "Tom, you used to be a prince of a fellow. You're some scrapping guy, too. Well, I been hearing a lot about you to-day. I hear, for one thing, that you're doing a lot o' talking about fillin' Clem Frobisher's shoes. I'm telling you right here that my shoes never left tracks in a saloon! Get that?"
"Say, what's the matter with you?" said Tom, with a scowl, seeing beyond all doubt that his former hero was bent on trouble. "Do you want to start somethin'?"
"When I get ready, I'll start it quick enough," snapped Clem. "Ed Davis came over with me, and we're going out in the Sadie to-night, Tom, on a three-days' trip—maybe longer. I want you to come along."
Tom was puzzled by this invitation, and was also half mollified.
"Why, Clem, I'd like to—darned if I wouldn't! But we got a big kelly game comin' off to-night—dollar a corner——"
"And your dad's house rent is owing." said Clem quietly. "Will you come or not?"
"Don't see how I can——"
Like a flash, Clem's right shot out. It drove fair and square to the big fellow's jaw. Tom went staggering back, and his friends surged forward at Clem with a snarl of rage. Gripping the pool table behind him, Tom Saunders turned on them hotly.
"Git back, you flatfoots! Keep out o' this!"
"Bully for you, Tom!" said Clem approvingly. Then, as Tom turned, Clem was in, with a leap, and the row began.
And, as a water-front row, it was historic. Tom Saunders was no bluffer. He had size and brawn, he took punishment like a punching bag, and he had a kick like a mule. When he started in to fight he usually demolished everything in sight.
But from the start it was evident that he had no chance.
Clem Frobisher in action was a whirlwind. If he lacked size, he had a savage earnestness which won half his battles. He went into a scrap heart and soul and body, for, if he had to fight, he wanted no halfway measures. He was not a halfway man.
The battle was short, sharp, and furious. Foolishly, Tom drove for Clem's face and jaw, but Clem fought otherwise. He was out for blood, figuratively speaking.
Taking a smack that brought a black eye, without a wince, he broke through the other's guard and slammed his fists into Tom's body time and again. Never had any one seen him go into a fight with such savage, deadly fury. Within thirty seconds, Tom Saunders was backed into a corner, mouthing oaths and lashing out half at random, while Clem's terrible right and left swings pounded over his heart and stomach.
Unexpectedly, Clem shot up a swift uppercut that rocked Tom's head back. The other's arms flew up, and Clem's right bored into the solar plexus. It was almost a finishing blow. Tom emitted a gasp, and flung out his arms to save himself from going down. Clem swung down his arm for the knock-out.
At that instant, the rage of Tom's followers broke all bounds. One of them came in, swinging a billiard cue, and aimed a blow that would have resulted in the penitentiary had it landed. But it did not land.
As the cue flashed up behind Clem, a lean figure came from nowhere, apparently, and placed a blow under the fellow's ear that landed the would-be murderer under a table and kept him there. Then Clem heard his chum's voice ringing behind him:
"You fellers better scatter quick! There's two cops headed this way!"
Clem's arm shot out. Tom Saunders groaned and collapsed. The others were hastily streaming out the back entrance; and Clem, gripping his late opponent's collar, turned to Ed Davis with a panting gasp of relief.
"Good boy, Ed! Pick up his feet, now—move fast!"
And, as the police entered by the front door, they vanished into the alley at the rear, carrying the unconscious Tom Saunders between them.
"Shanghaied him, by thunder!"
Ed Davis grinned down at the sleeping Tom. The Sadie was dancing to the lilting ground swells, at dawn, far out beyond Catalina Island.
"Below there!" rang the voice of Clem, on deck above. "Ed, rouse that fellow up, or I'll do it myself!"
Ed, who was about to turn in, after standing watch all night, shrugged his shoulders and grinned. Then he caught the sleeping Tom Saunders by the leg, hauled him roughly out of the bunk, and, planting two stinging blows, sent him up the tiny companionway with a kick.
Furious, half awake, cursing, Saunders gained his balance on the deck and stared at the ocean in blank bewilderment. Clem, at the wheel, let out a roar.
"Wake up, you slob! Take one o' them buckets and a broom, an' wash down the decks!"
Tom stared at the pilot house, saw Clem's battered features, and comprehended at last. His heavy face contracted in anger.
"By thunder, I'll make you sweat for this!" he burst forth, and came on the run.
Clem slipped a loop over the wheel and met Tom halfway. Nor did he waste any time or sympathy, for he was a captain, and his crew was in mutiny. Before Tom could get within fighting distance, Clem smashed him across the head with the butt end of a gaff. He reeled back, caught at the rail, and clung there weakly.
"I've a word to say to you, Tom Saunders," remarked Clem quietly, watching him for signs of further trouble. "You think you're something of a boss scrapper, and a deuce of a sporty chap. You're not. You're a cheap, low-down drunken loafer!
"You keep away from your old father and mother as much as you can, and you loaf around the water front, gambling and fighting and drinking. Well, you're going to get your fill o' fighting this trip, believe me! You're going to realize that you got a blamed sight better home than any pool room will furnish——"
Tom, partly recovered from that stunning blow, leaped in again.
Clem raised the gaff, then dropped it. He saw that Tom was a glutton for punishment, and determined to administer it. Yet he admired deeply the dogged courage of the other.
Cool, confident, smiling, for a good ten minutes he smashed Tom Saunders about the deck. At the end of that time Tom collapsed, both eyes puffing, and his face hammered black and blue. Clem caught up a canvas bucket, trailed it over the side, and sluiced Tom with cold salt water until Tom sat up, gasping and half drowned.
"If you've had enough, get busy and clean them decks!" snapped Clem.
Tom had not had enough, as his curses showed, but he set to work cleaning the decks. During breakfast, he eyed Clem in sullen silence, and after breakfast Clem set him to work cleaning out the fish boxes and untangling lines and leaders.
Shortly afterward, Clem caught sight of a flock of gulls far to the south, and headed the Sadie for them. Where the gulls were there were yellowtail, and skipjack also. Calling Tom, he put him to work at the outriggers.
These were long ten-foot poles, set into sockets just abaft the pilot house, and projecting over the rails. From each pole were set out three hundred-yard lines, the outermost of which bore automatic strikers, the others bearing hooks and minnows.
Five minutes later they got the first strike, and then the fun waxed fast and furious. Clem let out a yell for Ed Davis, and they began to haul in fifteen and twenty-pound yellowtail as fast as the trolling lines could be drawn taut. As Clem and Tom hauled in the fighting, darting, leaping fish, Ed gaffed them.
By noon they had over twenty, with a few barracuda and skipjacks. Then Clem hauled about for San Clemente, looped the wheel, and settled down with the others to lunch.
"When you get the dishes washed up, Tom," said Ed Davis, "you'd better clean one of them barracuda for supper. Then give that cabin a good cleaning and then——"
"Say, you fellers are almighty fresh!" said Tom Saunders, feeling his black-and-blue eyes tenderly. "How long is this thing goin' to last?"
"Until we get ready to quit," said Davis, grinning pleasantly. "Your proud spirit needs a whole lot o' chastening, friend Tom."
"Well, what's the idea? What have I ever done to you guys?"
"Nothing," broke in Clem coldly. "But you're becoming a pretty worthless sort of citizen, Tom. If I had a father and mother like yours, I'd try and make something of myself, instead of hanging around——"
"Yes, you're a beaut!" sneered Tom. "'Cause you're a city guy, now, you're all stuck up, hey?"
"I don't think you quite understand." Clem smiled slightly. "You're out of proportion with the real facts of life, Tom. Your outlook is warped. Instead of seeing things as they are, you see them from the viewpoint of your pool-room and saloon friends. Well, when we get back to Pedro you'll have forgotten all your dreams of being a tough fighter and gambler and drinker. You're really such a splendid chap at bottom, Tom——"
With a snarl of fury, Tom Saunders leaped to his feet. Unobserved, he had worked himself into position by the rack holding the fish gaffs. With the rapidity of lightning, he seized one of the ten-foot poles and made a vicious lunge for Clem.
Clem ducked. The curved, sharp, unbarbed steel missed his shoulder by a hair's breadth and tore through his flannel shirt. It would have gone through his flesh quite as easily.
Before Tom could extricate the weapon Ed Davis was on him in one leap.
Let it be understood that it was contrary to the natures both of Davis and of Clem Frobisher to treat any one with the brutality which they were displaying toward Tom Saunders. Yet it was not brutality. They were both thinking, not of Tom, but of the two old people in the vine-wreathed cottage.
Ed had mapped out a course, Clem had approved it, as had Captain Ezra Saunders, and now the two partners were following it rigidly. If it turned out badly, Tom would get no more than he deserved; if it turned out well, so much the better.
Blinded though he was, however, Tom gave the lanky Iowan the fight of his life. It was full seven minutes before Ed had his opponent on the deck, and even then Tom still lashed out blindly at the figure sitting on his chest. Not until Clem doused him anew with bucket after bucket of water did he give in.
"All right," he mumbled, rising unsteadily. "All right! You guys wait till I can see, that's all!"
"There's no waiting aboard this hooker!" snapped Clem. "You get for'ard and clean that fish, and do it right, see?"
"I'll do nothin' o' the sort!" returned Tom through his split lips. "You can beat me up all you want—I ain't goin' to stir a foot." A volley of oaths escaped him.
Clem, his lips tight clenched, inspected him for a moment, then turned to Ed.
"Get that bit of line out o' the locker aft, Ed—the rope's end that's tarred. Go after this guy, and give him a taste of deep-sea sailors' life."
For the rest of the afternoon Tom Saunders worked like a horse. A bit of thin rope, tarred into a stiff club, is a wonderfully effective inducement, when properly applied. Poor Tom made close acquaintance with it.
"We'll be off San Clemente at dawn, Ed," said Clem that evening. He and Ed Davis were eating fried barracuda while Tom conned the helm. "It'll be watch and watch all night, and we'll have to keep him awake and working till he drops."
"Haze him, eh?"
"Haze him until he's darned near dead!" And Clem compressed his lips. "Ed, it's an awful thing to do—but by golly it's a whole lot more awful to think o' him breakin' poor old Ma Saunders' heart!"
"We'll break him!" said Ed, nodding as he spoke. "We'll kill or cure, Clem—and I ain't right sure which it'll be."
Neither was Clem, unfortunately.
Dawn came upon the sea—and fog.
The Sadie was somewhere off San Clemente, that desolate, rocky, almost unknown island. The dense fog hid everything from view.
Clem, who would be on duty until eight o'clock, was seated beside the pilot house, cutting off yellowtail heads to use as bait for jewfish. The Sadie lay motionless on the oily waters, swinging listlessly to the swell of the channel. Up in the bows was a huddled, miserable figure—Tom Saunders, asleep at last.
That had been a terrible night for the shanghaied man.
Kept awake and at work, kept scrubbing, painting, untangling lines, oiling the engines, driven to the work and kept at it by boot and fist and rope's end, Tom had finally given way.
When Clem took the deck, at four o'clock, the sight of Tom smote his heart. Yet he drove him relentlessly. An hour later the end had come.
Sobbing, praying, pleading, Tom had crept to him, begging for sleep, begging for release from the torture. Even then Clem had steeled himself, and had renewed his driving, hut not for long. He had not the heart.
Tom Saunders had been broken at last—had promised everything and anything, had wept and prayed anew. At six o'clock, Clem had told him to sleep, and he had dropped in a pitiable heap where he stood.
"It's a mean job," thought Clem, as he baited the huge hooks on his line. "But he's had an hour's rest now, so we'll try him out. Besides, he can stand a lot more—and it's necessary. Kill or cure!"
Accordingly, he awakened poor Tom by repeated sluices of water, thrust a rod into his hand, bade him angle for a jewfish, and baited his own line. Somewhat to Clem's surprise, Tom said nothing whatever, and did not rebel; but he sat on the rail, shivering, and gazed miserably at the water.
A moment later, just as Clem was unreeling his line, he saw Tom start to his feet, and heard the buzz of the automatic drag.
"Got one?" he cried. Tom merely nodded.
A glance showed Clem that the jewfish was running out ahead of the launch, and he leaped to the engines.
"I'll give her half speed!" he exclaimed swiftly. "Reel up as we get over him."
He noted that the fog seemed to have thickened rather than diminished.
With the Sadie running slowly ahead, Clem regained the deck to find Tom reeling in his line, the stubby, powerful rod bent almost double. The jewfish, for all its great size, is not a wonderful fighter; none the less, it was a good ten minutes before Tom got the fish close to the surface.
Yet he seemed not a whit excited. He reeled mechanically; his hands were blue with cold; he seemed broken in spirit. Clem watched him with some anxiety, wondering if the hazing had been carried too far.
"Here!" he exclaimed suddenly, as the line came in. "Take this gaff, and bring him up, Tom! I'll hold him at the surface!"
Clem thought he saw tears on the other's cheeks.
The exchange was made. Tom took the gaff and stood on the rail, clinging to a stay, bending over the water. Clem, taking the rod, was astonished. The fish must be a four-hundred-pounder at least, he decided. Then, peering over the side as he forced the jewfish up, he saw the great oval mass below. The surface water broke into a mass of foam.
Tom lunged with the gaff—lunged again—missed both times. Then, with a muttered word of exasperation, he leaned far over and caught the fish squarely.
He did not lift quickly enough, however, to get the fish out of water. There was a surge and a swirl beneath, and a short cry broke from Tom.
"Give me a hand——"
Before Clem could move, he saw Tom, hanging grimly to the gaff, drawn out by the fish's wide, circling sweep. In a flash, the dogged San Pedro boy had his hold broken, had lost his balance—and was overboard.
"By golly, he's too cold and stiff to swim!" thought Clem swiftly. He lifted his voice in a ringing shout:
"Ed! Ed! On deck! Man overboard!"
With the words, he caught up the life preserver hanging at the rail and tossed it over the side. Then, his coat off, he leaped after it, in wild fear lest his own driving tyranny had been carried so far that Tom would have no strength left.
In that desperate fear, he came to the surface almost beside the struggling figure of Tom Saunders. A few yards away was floating the round life buoy. Catching Tom by the collar, Clem gained the preserver in a few strokes, and bobbed Tom up inside it.
"Get your arms over the sides—that's right! Now take a turn of the line about your arms. Good!"
Satisfied that Tom was sure to float, Clem turned on his side and sent a glance around for the Sadie. With a shock, he remembered that her engines were set at half speed.
She was gone in the fog!
Stilling the momentary panic that seized him, Clem lifted his voice in a shout. He knew that Ed Davis would be on deck by this time, but at sight of the swirls of fog, that hid the water ten feet away, his heart sank.
"How you makin' it, Tom?"
"All right." said the other mechanically. "I lost the fish, I guess."
"I guess you did." Clem chuckled. "Can you give a yell?"
Tom emitted a feeble cry, that betrayed his weakness more than words could have done. A wave broke over them, and Clem took his weight off the preserver, allowing it to float higher. It could not well sustain them both.
Also, there was a choppy sea running—the island current cutting up the long, easy ground swell. It was hard swimming, and the water was cold.
"What on earth's the matter with Ed?" exclaimed Clem anxiously. "We ought to hear the horn—— Ah! There it is! Thank goodness!"
Muffled, but unmistakable, the blast of the Sadie's foghorn pierced its way to them. Clem shouted again and again. Ed was on the job!
"It don't seem to be gettin' much closer," muttered Tom.
Clem listened. No—it was not growing closer. It was hard to tell from which direction the sound came, but certainly the launch was receding from them. Resting once more on the life preserver, Clem bellowed for all he was worth.
"Better quit yellin'," mumbled Tom. "It'll tire you out quicker'n any——"
The rest was lost in a splutter as a wave lapped over them. Clem again released the life buoy, which lifted Tom well above the water.
Ridding himself of his clothes, Clem swam more easily, but he felt the chill of the water keenly. Owing to the choppy back lash of the waves, it was impossible to float. He had to swim continually to hold himself up.
"Hang on to the cork, ye blamed fool!" said Tom.
"I will, if I need to. I'm all right."
The horn was sounding no longer!
Clem knew that their situation was desperate in the extreme. Which way the island lay, no one could tell. They were in a spot reached only by an occasional fishing boat. The fog would not lift before noon. Unless Ed Davis found them by chance, they could not both last—the preserver would only keep one man up.
Clem found himself becoming weakened by that continual struggle.
How long he swam beside Tom, he never knew. It seemed like days. He swam now on his side, now on his back. Change position as he might, however, he could not get away from the choppy, short seas. The sound of the foghorn came to them no more, and Clem forbore to shout, knowing the effort useless unless Ed Davis came close by them.
"How are you, Tom?" he said, resting on the preserver. A wave broke over them. Clem hastily drew away, yet with an inward groan.
"All right," responded Tom, lying nobly. "Catch on here."
Clem smiled a little. The faintness of the other's voice had told him all he wanted to know. Tom was incapable of any exertion.
"And I'm responsible for Tom's condition," was the thought that drove into Clem's heart with paralyzing truth. He called up his reserve strength and breasted the waves, but the effort wasted him alarmingly. His limbs were stiff, numbed. He prayed for the Sadie, but she came not.
"Tom," said Clem, as he turned, swimming beside the buoy and watching Tom's white, stern-clenched face, "we've hazed you pretty hard this trip, but it was for your own good. Ed and I came to Pedro, and found——" A wave plunged over him. Clem fought it down, gasping.
"We found your dad ten years older than he was a month or two ago. Ma didn't say much, but she was pretty hard hit—and it was your fault, Tom. You've been running with the wrong crowd, and because you're a good deal above them in every way they've toadied to you and got you on the down grade to their level. Ed and I——"
Again a great quantity of green water curled over him. The crest swallowed him. Desperate, Clem lost his head, and flurried wildly, frantically, wasting precious strength. When he emerged, half strangled, his own danger frightened him into coolness.
"Grab hold o' the buoy, you fool!" growled Tom weakly.
"Shut up!" gasped Clem. "Listen! I want you to understand why we acted as we did, Tom. Your drinking and loafing and general cussedness has darned near wrecked your——"
Once more a smother of water dragged him down. He fought against the wild impulse to grab the buoy, but he struggled up to find Tom's hand on his arm.
"Git aboard here——"
"Quit!" snarled Clem, flinging back and breaking the other's hold. He gazed at Tom with desperate, convulsed features. He knew he could not last long. His strength was going fast. "We can't, both hang on there, you idiot! It—it won't hold—more'n one—and——"
"Then I'll drop!" And Tom tried to heave himself up and release the lashing about his arms. He failed, through very stiffness and weakness.
"No, you won't—you go back home and—tell ma that—that——" Clem went under, fought frantically, felt the terrible weakness overpower him. Then he caught a breath of blessed air again. "So long—cut out—the booze——"
With a groan, Clem found his strength gone. He seemed to collapse utterly. He felt the water close over him, choking, strangling, smothering—and then he knew nothing more.
A moment afterward the Sadie poked her nose out of the fog, almost above Tom.
"Golly! I thought I was gone——"
Clem opened his eyes and stared.
He found himself in the cabin of the Sadie. Above him was standing Ed Davis; and Clem, feeling himself almost naked, knew that his chum had been working over him.
"You were blamed near gone!" exclaimed Ed anxiously. "I got the water out of you, though. How do you feel?"
"Tired. Where's Tom?"
"Up above. He's all right—kind o' went to pieces when I got you aboard."
Ed heaped blankets about Clem. Then he continued swiftly:
"I got some coffee on the fire now. Say! Do you know what that cuss done?"
"Yep! I found him hangin' on to your collar—both o' you danged near drowned, by thunder! He made me haul you up first, too! Say, what happened? I ain't understood yet how you come overboard——"
"Get the coffee," muttered Clem, closing his eyes. "Talk later."
With a mutter of self-accusation, Ed rushed away.
Clem lay in a coma of exhaustion. He felt a gradual warmth steal through him, and realized that he was safe enough; but he was too weary to move. A moment later he caught a step at his side, and opened his eyes, thinking that Ed had returned.
Instead, however, he saw Tom Saunders. The big fellow, staring at Clem with wild eyes, lowered himself to the edge of the bunk. He was white and shaken. As he met the gaze of Clem he broke down, and lowered his face in his arms, sobbing unrestrainedly.
Clem wondered, but was too weak to speak for the moment. At length Tom lifted his head.
"Thank Heaven, you're safe!" he mumbled. "Say, Clem, I——"
"Thanks, old man," broke in Clem, putting out a hand. "Ed told me how you held me up—it was fine work——"
"Oh, shut your blamed mouth!" growled Tom, sitting up. "I got somethin' to say—you shut up till I get through!"
Clem watched him, waiting in puzzled silence.
"You know what you said when—when you was goin' down?" blurted out Tom. "About ma and dad—and what you——"
"I know," said Clem. "Well?"
Tom's white face flushed slightly.
"Clem, it's darned hard to explain—but just then, when you went down, an' I seen how you was givin' up so's I could go back—it kind o' made me realize that you'd meant every darned word o' what you said. I hadn't thought of it that way before—but it came to me all of a heap—well, I can't say any more, Clem—only I want to tell you that I've been a darned fool, and——"
"Say, you two guys better drink this coffee in a hurry," broke in the voice of Ed Davis, who had paused for a moment behind Tom, listening.
He came forward with two steaming cups of coffee, handed one to Tom, and helped Clem to put down the hot fluid in the other. With a sigh of increasing comfort, Clem fell back in the bunk and smiled faintly, his hand touching that of Tom.
"Ed," he said, "head the old hooker for Pedro, full speed! When we get in to-night——"
"When we get in to-night," broke in Ed, with a wide grin, "do you know what I'm goin' to do?"
"What?" asked Clem, with a smile.
"I'm goin' to eat one o' Ma Saunders' pies—all by myself."
"And I'll be there to help," said Tom.
In his handgrip and in his eyes there was that which told Clem more than words could say. Tom Saunders was headed home.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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