“Steady, Ralph, old fellow, the Galoups are right ahead.”
“All right,” responded Ralph Stetson from his position at the steering wheel of the swift motor boat the River Swallow, “I saw them ten minutes ago, Hardware. Just give Persimmons down below a hail and tell him to slow up a bit. They’re wild waters and we don’t want to go through them too fast.”
Harry Ware, who (from the fact that his initials were H. D. Ware) was known to his chums by the nickname Ralph Stetson had just used, hastened to the speaking tube connecting the bridge of the River Swallow with the engine room, in which Percy Simmons, another of Ralph’s chums, was tending the twin racing engines with assiduous care.
“Slow down a bit, Persimmons,” he yelled, “we’re just about to hit up the Gallops.”
“Whoop! Hurray for the Glues!” floated back up the tube, as Persimmons abbreviated the name of the famous rapids into the form by which they were locally known. “Hold tight, everybody. Zing! Zang! Zabella!”
The rapids the boys were approaching had been well named by the early French settlers along the St. Lawrence the Galoups, or, in plain English, the Gallops, or, again, to give them their local name, the Glues.
For two miles or more near the American side of the river the white-capped, racing waters tore along at thirty miles or so an hour. The great rocks that lay concealed under the tumbling foam-covered waters caused the river to boil and swirl like a hundred witches’ caldrons.
To an experienced skipper, however, the Galoups held no particular terrors. All that was needful was familiarity with the intricacies of their currents and whirlpools and they could be “run” in perfect safety. During the three months that the Border Boys had been the guests of Mr. Stetson at his summer home on Dexter Island, some miles below, they had gained the necessary skill to negotiate the racing, tumbling Glues. Aside from the fact that he had ordered the engines of his father’s fast craft, the River Swallow, slowed down as they approached the place, and that his hands gripped the steering wheel more tightly, Ralph Stetson, only son of King Pin Stetson, the Railroad Magnate, felt no particular qualms as the whitecaps of the rollicking Glues appeared out of the darkness ahead.
The River Swallow was a narrow, sharp-stemmed motor boat which had more than once successfully defended her title of the fastest craft on the St. Lawrence. She was about sixty feet in length, painted a gleaming, lustrous black, with luxuriously fitted cabins and engines of the finest type obtainable, which drove her twin propellers at twelve hundred revolutions a minute. No wonder the boys, who, since their sojourn on the island, had become adepts at handling her, enjoyed their positions as captain and crew of the craft.
One of the two paid hands, who berthed forward, came up to Ralph just as the latter reached out for the simple mechanism which controlled the powerful search-light mounted near the steering wheel.
The boy had decided to use the rays of the great lamp in picking out his course. In one or two places big rocks bristled menacingly out of the boiling rapids, and if the craft should happen to strike one of them, even with a glancing blow, a terrible accident would be almost certain to result. But with his search-light to act as a night-raking eye, Ralph felt small fear of anything of the sort occurring.
The man who came up to Ralph, just as a sharp click sounded and the bright scimitar of electric light, its power increased by reflectors, slashed the night, was a rather remarkable looking man to be an ordinary paid hand on a wealthy man’s pleasure boat.
Fully six feet in height, powerfully built and erect, he had at first glance a look of refinement and intelligence that did not, somehow, appear to blend well with the somewhat inferior position he occupied. It is true that it was honest, clean employment, of which no decent man need have been ashamed, but Ralph felt every time he looked at him that Roger Malvin – such was the name the man gave – might have secured some more suitable occupation.
Yet the first favorable impression that Malvin gave did not, for some reason, survive closer acquaintanceship. Underlying his air of frank intelligence was something else that Ralph had not so far been able to understand. There was something almost sneaking and furtive about Malvin at times. But Ralph, loath at any time to distrust any of those with whom he was thrown in contact, decided that probably this was a mere peculiarity of manner with no foundation behind it.
The other paid hand seemed a less complex person. Olaf Hansen was a short, rather insignificant looking little Norwegian, with light blue eyes, a ruddy complexion and a shock of yellow hair. He appeared to be rather under the sway of Malvin, who, before the boys had arrived, had had command of the River Swallow. Whether or not Malvin held any grudge against them for assuming charge of the boat and depriving him of the easy berth he had enjoyed, Ralph was not able to determine; but once or twice he had noticed little things about the man which more than half inclined him to the belief that such was the case. If this were actually so, Malvin had so far adopted no active measures of reprisal and obeyed orders with alacrity and willingness, just as he might have done had he always “berthed forward” in the cramped quarters assigned to the crew of the River Swallow.
“Want a hand to get through the Gallops, sir?” he asked respectfully as he came to Ralph’s side.
“No, thank you, Malvin,” was the rejoinder. “I guess by this time I’m enough of a skipper to take her through without any trouble.”
“The river’s fallen a little and they are pretty bad to-night,” hazarded Malvin. “I thought if I took the wheel – ”
He laid a hand on the spokes as he said this.
“Be good enough not to do that again,” said Ralph, rather sternly, as he spun the wheel, thus shaking off the man’s grip. “You made me swerve from my course quite a bit, and that isn’t safe right here, as you know.”
He looked sharply at the man as he spoke. The River Swallow had been up to Piquetville after supplies, groceries, and so forth, for use on the island. Malvin and the other hand had been given leave to go uptown while the boys marketed. For an instant a suspicion flashed across Ralph’s mind that Malvin had been intemperate during his “shore leave.” But a minute later he decided that it was only his imagination. Still, he did not like the way in which the man had deliberately tried to wrest the wheel from him. It savored of insubordination, something which he had never noticed in Malvin’s conduct hitherto.
“You can tend the search-light, Malvin,” he ordered sharply. “Try to pick up Big Nigger rock. Our course lies to starboard of that. Then we’ll pass the Needles on the port. After that it’s a clear run. The current will carry us through without much help from the engines.”
“Very well, sir,” said Malvin respectfully, taking up his position by Ralph’s side, one hand on the mechanism of the search-light.
Suddenly the even tenor of the River Swallow’s course was changed. It was apparent that a force superior even to her powerful engines had hold of the craft. Her light fabric shook as if in the grip of a giant’s fingers. She wallowed, swerved and plunged in the swift waters, throwing spray high over her bow as she entered the grasp of the Gallops.
Ralph thrilled. There was something that made the blood race through his veins as fast as the rapids themselves in the swift, sweeping dash through the treacherous channel. Once in the grip of the Gallops, there was no turning back. The task of bringing the River Swallow safely through lay in his hands and in his hands alone. On his nerve and skill everything depended during the next two miles.
The River Swallow shot forward, drawn by the tension of the racing rapids.
Suddenly Ralph’s attention was attracted to Malvin. For the second time that evening an ugly suspicion flashed into his mind.
As Malvin had said, the river was lower by a foot or more than it had been earlier in the summer. The Gallops were worse than Ralph had hitherto seen them. In going up the river to the town that afternoon their course had lain on the Canadian side, for it was impossible for any craft to ascend the rapids, no matter how powerfully engined. Therefore, Ralph had had no previous notion of the wildness of the waters which were now hurtling the River Swallow forward like a stone out of a sling. Had he known what effect the drop in the river would have had upon the swirling waters, it is likely that he would have taken to the Canadian side on the return trip. But the voyage through the rapids, as has been said, always exhilarated him; and, besides, it was growing late, and the passage through the Gallops shortened the trip to Dexter Island materially.
He was thinking these things over, giving all the while an alert mind to the handling of the boat, when his attention was drawn to Malvin in the manner described. The man was apparently making no effort to use the search-light to find out the jagged outlines of the rock known as Big Nigger. Instead, he appeared to be making aimless sweeps on the water with the light, and not trying in the slightest to locate the chief menace of the Gallops.
“Malvin!” called Ralph sharply.
“Sir!” the man’s voice was steady and respectful.
“I told you to locate Big Nigger.”
“I’m trying to, sir.”
“Nonsense. You know as well as I do that the rock should lie off on the other side. We pass it to starboard. Why don’t you cast the light in that direction?”
“I will, sir. I quite forgot that for a minute, sir,” was the response, in the same respectful tones.
“Odd that you should forget it,” spoke Ralph, “when you have run these rapids scores of times! I don’t understand – ”
The cry came from Hardware.
“Holy mackerel! Ralph!”
Ralph spun the wheel over with every ounce of power at his command. The rapids strained and tore at the rudder frantically. It was as if they wished to aid and abet in the destruction of the River Swallow. For dead ahead of the craft had loomed suddenly a sinister, menacing object that had caused the wave of panic to sweep over the boys on the bridge of the motor boat.
Big Nigger Rock!
Revealed by the rays of the search-light as suddenly as if it had been thrust upward by an unseen hand from the bottom of the rapids, the black boulder that bore the name dreaded by rivermen had appeared.
“We’re goners!” The cry came from Malvin.
He threw off his coat, and Ralph noted with astonishment, even as excited as he was, that the man had on under that garment a life preserver!
But the boy had not a moment to ponder on this strange fact, although it looked almost as if Malvin knew, by some marvelous instinct, that something was going to happen and had prepared for it. All the boy’s energies just then were centered in one task: to keep the River Swallow from being shattered into kindling wood against the gleaming, spray-wet sides of the Big Nigger.
“Shut down on your port engine; come full speed ahead on your starboard!”
Ralph had seized the flexible speaking-tube and roared the command down it.
“Jump now!” he added, as Persimmons’ “Aye! aye!” came back to him.
It was the only chance of saving the River Swallow from annihilation. By stopping one propeller and coming ahead on the other, Ralph hoped to be able to aid the rudder enough to swing the River Swallow’s bow outward from the rock.
Malvin paused by the rail. He had apparently been in the act of casting himself into the waters that boiled and seethed alongside. But Ralph had no time to notice the man now. All that he had eyes to see was the towering black buttress of rock ahead of them, against which it appeared that nothing short of a miracle could save the River Swallow from being splintered.
Young Ware, white-faced and tense, stood by Ralph’s side. Like Ralph, he sensed the full measure of the danger confronting them. Yet it spoke volumes for his pluck that he did not utter a sound after that first startled exclamation had escaped him, when the Big Nigger swung into the search-light’s vivid circle of white light. As for Persimmons in the engine room, he knew that some emergency must be confronting them. Yet he did not dream of deserting his post. Then the young skipper’s voice came down the tube once more.
“Get on a life preserver and come on deck. Quick! It may be life or death!”
The River Swallow headed straight for the Big Nigger. Ralph, every nerve and muscle in his active body strained to the breaking point, exerted every effort at his command to stave off the apparently inevitable crash. He knew that he had done all he could to avert the disaster that threatened to be swift and annihilating. All that was left to do now was to await the issue. Suddenly a sharp exclamation escaped Persimmons’ lips, and an instant later it was echoed by the others whom the young engineer had joined on the bridge.
“She’s swinging out!”
It was true. Out of the grasp of the rapids a boy’s skill had snatched victory against what had appeared to be overwhelming odds.
The Gallops roared and screamed and threatened in a thousand voices. They danced and leaped like white teeth defrauded of their expected prey. For that time at least they were to be cheated of a harvest of disaster to which, in the years gone by, they had become accustomed as a regular toll on the part of those who braved their fangs.
The River Swallow’s bow, forced outward by the engines and the rudder, swerved slowly to port. The next instant, at racing speed, she shot by the Big Nigger, hurtled along like a helpless chip on the surface of the mad waters.
So closely did they shave disaster that, from the bridge, it would have been possible with extended fingers to touch the rough surface of the Big Nigger as they were swept by. The next moment the peril that had chilled the blood in their veins was behind them.
“And now for an explanation from Malvin,” spoke Ralph grimly. “I rather think that there is one coming.”
Perhaps Malvin, who had stood poised as if ready for a jump as they passed the Big Nigger, heard the boy. At any rate, as Ralph spoke, he turned.
“A terribly narrow escape that, sir,” he said.
Ralph told Persimmons to go below and attend to his engines before he replied. Then he turned on the man.
“Yes, a terribly narrow escape which might have ended in disaster for us all,” he said, with an emphasis that allowed no doubt as to his meaning. In case that Malvin had not fully understood him, he added:
“Malvin, your carelessness almost cost us all our lives.”
“My carelessness, sir!”
The man’s voice held an aggrieved tone. He tried to slip into his coat and cover the life jacket he wore.
“I said ‘your carelessness.’ I don’t care to use a harsher word. How did it happen, Malvin, that you wore a life jacket to-night?”
“A life jacket, sir?”
“Yes; the one you put on under your coat. Surely you did not have an intuition that we were going to be wrecked?”
Ordinarily a bright, lively lad, Ralph could be stern enough when he chose. His experiences out west and in old Mexico had broadened and developed the youth whom we first encountered on a visit to Jack Merrill’s ranch in search of the health he had almost lost by overstudy at Stonefell College.
Ralph was not that boy now. He was the stern questioner of a man whose recent actions had surely justified him in entertaining black suspicions of the fellow. For the first time Malvin hesitated as Ralph shot out the question about the life jacket.
“Oh, yes, sir. The life jacket, sir. Yes, you see – ”
His voice trailed off. But Ralph pressed him harder.
“Come, I am waiting for an explanation. If one is not forthcoming I shall inform my father of your conduct.”
“I don’t see why I can’t wear a life jacket if I want to,” said Malvin, at length, in a voice that, for the first time, held a note of sullen defiance. “I know these Gallops better than you do, Master Stetson. I have always worn a life jacket when running them.”
“Yes,” said Hardware dryly, “you are more timid than we thought you, Malvin.”
“Never mind, Harry,” struck in Ralph; “tend that searchlight and keep a bright lookout for the Needles. We must pass them to port.”
“All right,” responded Hardware cheerfully; “luckily, there’s no ‘needles in a haystack’ business about them. They are as clear as the freckles on Persimmons’ face. Don’t worry.”
He began swinging the search-light off to the left-hand side of the boat, searching for the group of sharp-pointed rocks known as the Needles, which were by no means the menace to navigation that Big Nigger was.
“So you always wear a life jacket in running the rapids?” insisted Ralph, as his companion carried out his instructions.
“Always, sir; yes, sir. It’s the safest plan.”
“Well, I guess you are entitled to considerable praise for your foresight, Malvin,” said Ralph meaningly. “You can go forward.”
“All right, sir. Very well, sir,” was the rejoinder. Malvin once more appeared to have full control of himself.
He descended the two or three steps leading from the raised bridge from which the navigation of the River Swallow was directed. As his figure vanished forward in the darkness, Harry Ware turned to his chum.
“What do you make of that fellow, Ralph?”
“He’s a puzzle to which we have no answer – as yet,” was the reply.
“A puzzle, all right. I sure agree with you. But as to the answer part – ”
“I rather think that we are not so far off from the solution as you fancy. For instance, this business to-night.”
“Let’s hear what you make of it.”
“Why, it looked to me as if the fellow deliberately tried to wreck the boat.”
“But for what earthly reason?” demanded Ralph, in an astounded tone.
“Well, for one thing, we have supplanted him on board her. You must remember that before we came up here your dad had given Malvin absolute charge of the craft. I’ve heard that he took full advantage of this. The boat was seen cruising about at all hours of the night.”
“Even so. Granted that he dislikes us, even hates us, although he has shown no signs of harboring such a feeling.”
“I’m not so sure of that. Under that smooth manner he hides a vindictive nature. I’ve caught him looking at you once or twice, when he thought you weren’t looking and that nobody saw him, in a way that made me think he didn’t like you any too well.”
“Possibly he can’t be blamed for that, either. It is rather a come-down for him to have to take orders where he was used to giving them instead. But, even assuming all this, what reason would he have to try to wreck the River Swallow?”
“I imagine that in the answer to that lies the solution of that puzzle you were talking about a while back.”
“Well, let’s suppose – although I don’t for a minute believe it – that he actually was fiendish enough to try to destroy the craft out of malice, would not he have gone to the bottom, too?”
“I’m not so sure. Malvin is reputed to be the strongest swimmer in these parts. He was wrecked in a canoe in the rapids once and swam to an eddy and eventually reached the shore. Then, too, to-night he had on a life jacket. Does not that point to the fact that he believed some accident was going to happen, in which it would be necessary for him to swim for his life?”
“Oh, as to that, he had a good explanation for it,” responded Ralph.
“So I suppose,” was Harry Ware’s dry comment.
“After all, we may be unduly excited and manufacturing a melodramatic scare out of nothing at all,” pursued Ralph. “Well, there go the Needles! In a minute more we’ll be out of the Gallops, and for once I shan’t be sorry. That was just about as near to a smash-up as I care to come.”
The River Swallow shot onward for a short distance, and then, as she entered smoother water, Ralph rang for full speed ahead on both engines. He had hardly done this, when Hardware gave a sudden yell and pointed frantically ahead of them.
Through the night the gray, dim outlines of a passing craft, slipping along under the shore of one of the islands which dotted the other side of the Gallops, was visible. She carried no lights and was moving at a swift rate of speed.
In addition to the fact that the other craft carried no lights, she had risked collision with the River Swallow by cutting right across her bows. Both these actions were gross violations of the river law. The two boys stared into the darkness ahead as the gray shadow slipped on toward the Canadian shore.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered!” burst from Harry Ware’s lips. “It’s the ghost craft again.”
“Ghost nothing! If we’d hit her we’d have found her solid enough, I’ll bet,” declared Ralph. “Clap the search-light on her, Hardware. We’ve seen that craft so often lately that the thing is getting on my nerves. Men who are out on lawful errands don’t sneak about without lights. Let’s show her up and see what sort of a boat she is, and who mans her.”
Harry obediently turned his attention once more to the search-light. But though he swung it assiduously in the direction in which the “ghost craft,” as he called the mysterious gray motor boat, had last been seen, its rays failed to reveal a sign of her.
“Well, she can appear and vanish in a mighty spook-like fashion, even though she may be built of solid wood and iron,” declared young Ware, with conviction, as he reported no trace of the craft that had glided across their course in the darkness of the night.
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