Read CHAPTER XXVI of The Harbor of Doubt , free online book, by Frank Williams, on ReadCentral.com.

WETTING THEIR SALT

Pete Ellinwood, alone except for the cook, who sat peeling potatoes just outside the galley, paced the quarter-deck of the Charming Lass.

He seemed to be an older man than that night when, goaded beyond endurance by the taunts of the big Frenchman, he had fought a fight that would long be remembered in the streets of the roaring town of St. Pierre.

He felt that he had broken his promise to Ma Schofield that he would keep guard over her boy. Now, for all he knew, that boy was lying in jail at St. Andrew’s, or was perhaps defending his life in the murderer’s pen.

The night of the fight had been a wild one for Ellinwood.

At the cry of “Police!” the crowd had seemed to melt away from him like the bank fog at the sweep of a breeze. A dozen comrades had seized the prostrate Jean and hurried him away, and Pete, with the instinct of self-preservation, had snatched up his clothes and dodged down a dark alley toward the dirty drinking-shops along the water-front.

There, as he dressed himself, he first asked the question, “Where is Code?”

Then, in a frenzy of remorse, he returned to the street and began a wild and fruitless search all night. Then he accidentally learned that the Nettie B. had been in port two days and that her crew had been ashore on the night of the fracas.

Sorrowful, bedraggled, and bruised, he rowed out to the Charming Lass just as the whole crew was setting out for shore to search for Code and himself.

During the night the barrels of fresh bait had been lightered to the Lass, and there was nothing for it but to make sail and get back on the Banks as soon as possible, leaving Code to his fate but carrying on the work he had begun.

In accordance with Code’s instructions, Pete automatically became the skipper of the schooner, and he selected Jimmie Thomas as his mate. By nightfall they had picked up the fleet, and early the next morning the dories were out. Then for eight days it had been nothing but fish, fish, fish.

Never in all his experience had Pete seen such schools of cod. They were evidently herding together in thousands, and had found but scanty food for such great hosts, for they bit almost on the bare hook.

Now, as he looked around the still sea, the white or yellow sails of the fishing fleet showed on all sides in a vast circle. Not five miles away was the Rosan, and to the southward of her the Herring Bone with mean old Jed Martin aboard. Bijonah Tanner had tried his best to shake Martin, but the hard-fisted old skipper, knowing and recognizing Tanner’s “nose” for fish, had clung like a leech and profited by the other’s sagacity.

Nor was this all the Grande Mignon fleet.

There were Gloucestermen among it, the champion fishers of the world, who spent their spare time in drifting past the English boats and hurling salty wit at which pastime they often came off second best.

There were Frenchmen, too, from the Miquelon Islands, who worked in colored caps and wore sheath-knives in belts around their waists. Pete often looked over their dirty decks and wondered if his late enemy were among them. There were also vessels called “toothpicks” that did an exclusive trawling business, never using dories except to underrun the trawls or to set them out. These vessels were built on yacht lines and, because they filled their holds quickly, made quick runs to port with their catches, thus getting in several trips in a season.

Also, there were the steam trawlers, the most progressive of the fleet, owned and operated by huge fish firms in Boston or Portland. These were not dependent on the vagaries of the wind and steamed wherever their skippers divined that fish might be.

Last of all were the seiners after herring and mackerel, schooners mostly, and out of Gloucester or Nova Scotia ports, who secured their catch by encircling schools of fish that played atop of the water with nets a quarter of a mile long, and pursued them in by drawstrings much as a man closes a tobacco-pouch.

This was the cosmopolitan city that lived on the unmarked lanes of the ocean and preyed upon the never-failing supplies of fish that moved beneath.

Among the Grande Mignon boats there was intense rivalry. In the holds the layers of salted fish rose steadily under the phenomenal fishing. The salt-barrels were emptied and crowded out by the cod, hake, and pollock. It was these boats that Ellinwood watched with the eye of a hawk, for back in Freekirk Head he knew that Bill Boughton stood ready to pay a bonus for the first cargo to reach port. Now was the time when the advance orders from the West Indies were coming up, and, because of the failure of the season on the island itself, these orders stood unfilled.

One or two of the smallest sloops had already wet their salt and weighed anchor for home, taking letters and messages; but these, Pete knew, could only supply an infinitesimal portion of the demand. What Boughton looked for was a healthy load of fifteen hundred to two thousand quintals all ready for drying.

Night and day the work went on. With the first signs of daylight the dories were swung outboard and the men took their positions. A catch of two hundred good-sized cod was now considered the usual thing for a handliner, and night after night the piles of silver fish in the pens amidships seemed to grow in size.

Now they dressed down under lantern light, sometimes aided by the moon, and the men stood to the tables until they fell asleep on their feet and split their fingers instead of the fish. Then, after buckets of hot coffee, they would fall to again and never stop until the last wet body had been laid atop of its thousands of brothers.

The men were constantly on the trawls. Sometimes they did nothing all day but pick the fish and rebait, finding, after a trip to the schooner to unload, that a thousand others had struck on the long lines of sagging hooks while they were gone.

It was fast and feverish work, and it seemed as though it would never end.

The situation had resolved itself into a race between the schooners, and Ellinwood was of no mind to come off second best. Like a jockey before a race, he watched his rivals.

He knew that foxy Bijonah Tanner, who sometimes looked like an old hump-backed cod himself, was his most dangerous rival. Tanner said nothing, but his boats were out early and in late, and the lanterns on his deck over the dressing pens could sometimes be seen as late as ten o’clock at night.

Visits among the fleet had now ceased, both because there was no time for it, and because a man from another schooner was looked upon as a spy.

At the start of the season it had been expected that Nat Burns in the Nettie B. would prove a strong contender for premier honors, but, because of his ceaseless efforts to drive home his revenge, Nat had done very little fishing and therefore could not possibly be in the market.

Other Freekirk Head men shrugged their shoulders at this. Nat had the money, and could act that way if it pleased him, they said. But, nevertheless, he lost favor with a great many of his former friends, for the reason that the whole fishing expedition had been a concerted movement to save the people and credit of the island, and not an exploitation of individual desires.

Burns had, with his customary indifference to others, made it just exactly such an exploitation, and the sentiment that had been strong for him at the outset of the cruise was now turning decidedly the other way; although he little guessed this or would have been influenced had he done so.

In reality, then, the race for fish was keenest between the Charming Lass, the Rosan, and the Herring Bone, with three other schooners very close on their heels.

At the end of the nine days there was little space beneath the deck planks of the Charming Lass, but every night Pete would come up, slapping his hands free of salt, and say, “Wal, boys, I guess we can crowd another day’s work into her,” and the exhausted men would gather themselves for another great effort as they rolled forward into their bunks.

Every twenty-four hours they did crowd another day’s work into her, so that she carried nearly a hundred and fifty tons and the dripping brine had to be pumped out of the hold.

It was the night of the day that opened this chapter.

The lanterns by which the men had dressed down had been lifted from their supports, the cod livers dumped into the gurry-butt, and the tables removed from the rails. The two men on the first watch were sharpening the splitting knives on a tiny grindstone and walking forward occasionally to see that the anchor and trawl buoy lights were burning.

The still air resounded with the snores of the exhausted men forward in the forecastle.

Silently out of the darkness a dory came toward the schooner, pulled by the brawny arms of two men. In the stern of the oncoming boat sat a solitary figure, who strained his eyes toward his destination.

The dory was within fifty yards of the Lass before the men on deck became aware of its approach. Then, fearing some evil work in connection with the last desperate days of fishing, they rushed to the bulwarks and challenged the newcomers. They did not see, a mile away, a schooner without lights gently rising and falling on the oily sea.

“Who is that?” demanded one man, but he received no answer except “A friend,” and the boat continued its stealthy approach. It drew alongside the ladder in the waist, and the man in the stern-sheets rose. Kent of the Lass’s crew leaned over the side and threw the light of his lantern upon the man.

“By God,” he cried like one who has seen a ghost, “it’s the skipper.”