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Title: How They Took The Olga Out
       A Story Of The Pacific Sealers
Author: Harold Bindloss
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000601.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2010
Date most recently updated: October 2010

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Title: How They Took The Olga Out
       A Story Of The Pacific Sealers
Author: Harold Bindloss


* * *


Published in The Queenslander, Saturday, 12 July, 1902.


* * *


It happened a few years ago that the three Powers ruling over the frozen
shores of the polar Sea were engaged in a keen dispute as to the right
of their respective subjects to kill the seal in the mist shrouded
waters of the North. British, Russian, and American diplomacy was hard
at work, and meantime ugly rumours flew up and down the coast, from
Alaska to Puget Sound. Boats, it was said, had been ruthlessly fired
upon by Russian cruisers, schooners wrongfully seized, and--so the
whispers ran--crews had been sent inland and lost in the silence of
Siberia. Probably the rumours were not all true; but there are schooners
missing to this day, and vessels actually sailed from Portland and
Astoria armed with quick-firing guns.

A group of ragged men, who claimed the rights and privileges of British
subjects, were seated above the weed-grown ledges of a certain harbour
on the dreary Kamtchatkan coast towards the close of one lowering day.
Behind them rose a wilderness of rocky hills, their summits veiled in
mist, and sombre pine-woods about their feet; before them the lonely
waters of the Pacific rolled eastwards until the long undulations were
lost in trails of clammy mist. And this is the general aspect of the
shores of the North from Lawrence Island round by the Aleutians to Cape
Lopatka--forbidding gray headlands, neutral-tinted sea, a sky of
steely-blue, and belts of eternal haze. The writer speaks advisedly, for
he has been there.

The men were typical of their class--gaunt, hard-featured seafarers, who
lived a rough and dangerous life, and feared no man on all the breadth
of the ocean. The sealers are an ill folk to meddle with, and there are
curious stories told of their doings from Mackenzie mouth to Japan. Now
and then they fight vigorously for their rights, or what they consider
their rights to be, with stretcher and handspike, and sometimes, it is
said, with the big sealing-rifle too.

They were a tattered, disreputable crew, with a curious hollowness in
their cheeks and an angularity of frame; for a Russian prison is not a
healthy place to dwell in, nor is black bread of rye and bark a
nourishing diet. One, however, betrayed himself in speech and gesture as
an Englishman used to a different life. How Harry Ormond came to cast in
his lot with these free-lances of the sea was his own affair; but
unfortunately for himself he was there.

The oldest of the party leaned his head upon his hands and stared hard
at a rickety, worm-eaten schooner lazily dipping her bows into the
gray-backed swells. She had been confiscated by the Russians many years
before for illegal sealing, and was now too old for anything but a brief
fishing-trip. There was a certain resolute look about the hard mouth and
keen eyes of this man, as of one accustomed to carry his life in his
hands and earn his bread in peril of grinding icepack and nameless reef.

"What are you glaring at by the hour together, Steve Marshall?" said
Ephraim Fuller, one-time mate of the sealing schooner Cedar-branch,
whose Japanese bride had long ago consoled herself for his disappearance
with a Yankee whaler; and his comrade answered:

"I was thinkin' of all we've gone through since the Russians seized us
off the Vitchka beach. Where's our schooner now? And what are they doin'
at Ottawa to leave us rottin' here?"

"It's curious," broke in the Englishman, "that the Russians should let
us breathe free air at last. Why do they do it now? I wonder if that
story of the Chatkadaler fishermen is true--sealers marched inland."

"They'll never take me there alive," said Fuller, the mate, "and my hide
don't value much. You're skipper yet, Steve Marshall. Is there nothing
we can do; an' you with a wife in Westminster town?"

A low growl of approval went up, and the captain turned his steady gaze
upon the speaker. Steve Marshall was not a man of many words, but what
he said was generally to the point. So he answered slowly: "Give me
time. I was thinkin', too, that if we could get off some dark night,
that old bucket of an Olga might make shift to take us home--an' the
sooner the better. Who knows what may happen next?"

Then a bugle-call rang out from beyond the clustering roofs of the
wooden town, and the boom of a gun answered, for the watery sun had set.
A Russian soldier strode out of the gathering mist above, and, leaning
on his rifle, beckoned with his hand; and they followed without a word.

That night there was much earnest consultation in the fetid loghouse
prison, until at last Fuller, the mate, said: "It's curious they're not
half so careful of us now. Perhaps it's a trap for us to break out and
get shot, so the less noise the better, Steve; there may be a sentry
there."

"The worse for that sentry, then," answered Marshall, swinging a massy
pinewood stool aloft to the full swoop of his powerful arms. Down it
came with a whirr and a crash; the barred door shivered, and a little
chilly air blew in upon them.

"All together; shove," said the mate. There was a splintering of timber
as the door fell back, the night wind swept their faces, and they were
free.

"Now," said Marshall, "there are two things to be done. One is to rustle
for the beach, and the other is to bring the Siwash" (British Columbia
coast Indians) "sealers out. Who'll slip down to the other log-louse? I
don't sail without them."

Then there was discussion and dissension. Some said it was madness to
risk the safety of all for the alien dory-hands, and others agreed with
the skipper that the Siwash should have a chance.

"We signed on each man his share in the skins, each man his share in the
risk," said Marshall gravely. "They did their part, and I do mine; they
sail with us, or I raise the town."

"I'll go," answered the mate. "We'll be on the beach in an hour; if not,
we'll never come. You can sail without us then."

A little fitful moonlight shone down for a time upon the shingled roofs
as the men crept cautiously towards the inlet, then the fog rolled down
in chilly wreaths, and the fierce baying of a hound rose up above the
meaning of the sea.

They cursed the dog beneath their breath, pressing on the faster, and at
last stood upon the weed-grown ledges, with the lone swell lifting the
searack at their feet. The fog was sliding past in woolly wisps; but
through the whiteness something loomed out shadowy and indistinct, and
there was a sound as of the tide racing past the bows of a rolling
vessel.

"There she is," said Marshall; "they'd hear us a mile away draggin' a
boat over the shingle at the landin'. Two men must swim, and bring the
dory off. I'm one."

"I'm the other," spoke up Ormond; and some one said, "Well done for the
old country."

The two men shed most of their garments upon the weed, and waded
cautiously down the shelf. A brimming swell rolled in out of the night,
lapped about them from knee to breast, cold as death with the chill of
the Arctic ice: and Ormond felt something strike through him like a
knife. Then there was a shout in his ear, "Head up-tide all you're
worth;" and he launched out with the streaky backwash. For a time he
could see nothing but a clammy curtain of mist: then his eyes caught the
dull shimmer of the drippings hull, and a voice said, "Up-tide: it's
runnin' like a sluice-head."

The schooner lay close at hand, but their limbs were stiffened by
confinement, and the yards seemed miles as they fought the icy stream
together side by side. At last the wallowing hull was close ahead, and
Marshall gasped. "Grab the channels when she rolls down."

Ormond slid beneath the bowsprit; the wet side swayed towards them and
the dark sea sucked it down, and the longed-for handhold swept past, a
foot above their grasp. Clutching at the slimy pinewood he drove along
the bends, and a spluttering voice behind him said, "Thank the Lord,
there's a dory astern; it's our only chance."

A moment later the two men grasped the trailing painter, and with pain
and difficulty dragged themselves in over the bows. Next they cast the
dory loose, and a murmur of applause and welcome went up as they came
shorewards across the tide.

"Take the oars. We have done our part," said Marshall when the keel
ground upon the stone. The men tumbled in, a swell poured deep across
the gunwale, then the dory shot out into the mist as fast as the bending
blades could drive her through the water, and ran crashing alongside the
schooner. Gaskets were cast loose, and the big, mildewed
fore-and-afters' fluttered noisily aloft, shaking down a drenching
shower upon the men below. Afterwards the skipper stood beside the
wheel, staring into the fog, and Ormond paced fiercely to and fro to
warm his frozen limbs, longing as he had never longed before for the
sound of footsteps on the beach. But there was nothing to break the
stillness save the canvas slatting overhead in the land-breeze, the
nervous whispers of the crew, and the moaning of the swell upon the
weedy reefs.

"The hour's long past. Will they never come?" said Marshall, and the men
stirred uneasily as they strained both eyes and ears. At last a faint
hail came down the wind, two hands leapt into the dory, and she slid
away towards the inner harbour.

"They might hear the thudding of the oars half-way across the town,"
said Ormond huskily; and the skipper answered, "They've probably been
heard already, but that don't count if once we've the luck to take her
out."

Then the boat came back, loaded to the covering-strike, with the water
foaming about her bows. A dozen brown-skinned Siwash leapt on board, and
some one said, "There's no time to man the levers; half the place is
coming down."

Fuller the mate swung a hammer twice; there was a sharp metallic clang
as he drove out the shackle-pin and a grinding roar of chain running
out. Then the head sails rattled up the stays, and as Marshall wrenched
over the spokes, the schooner swung round upon her heel, with her bows
towards the ocean. Two dark figures were clinging to the cross-trees
overhead; the thundering folds of the huge gaff-topsail hardened into
iron curves; and with the brine hissing around her stem, the Olga drove
out goose-winged to sea.

"The Lord send us clear of the reefs this night," said Fuller the mate;
and the skipper answered grimly, "Reef, an' shelf, an' barrier, an'
we're blundering through them all--straight away to sea."

Two men were crouching upon the forecastle-head, straining their eyes to
pierce the whiteness; and presently there came a warning cry, "Breakers
ahead--starboard for your life!"

"Starboard it is; stand by the guys," was the answer from the helm, and
the rotten boom-foresail jibbed over with a bang that rent it from
throat to clew. Then, as the fluttering cloths blew out to lee, the
schooner stopped dead with a shivering crash, and there was a sluicing
of water along the deck.

"The shingle-barrier," cried the mate; "perhaps she'll drive across."

Twice the vessel quivered and groaned, grinding her keel among the
pebbles. Then a long-backed swell rolled in, swayed her sluggishly
aloft, and as she shut out into the night, leaving the last of the
Russian ground behind, more than one ragged sealer shook his clenched
fist in the direction of the invisible town with words which it is not
lawful to use.

"Start the pumps, Fuller," said the skipper; "after that the old wreck
will be leaking like a sieve. Get below, you Siwash, and make a fire.
You can settle the watch among yourselves."

When day came and the Olga rolled southwards alone upon a narrow,
mistwalled circle of streaky sea, they found the skipper's words were
true--the ancient vessel leaked like a sieve, and a wide meshed one at
that. Furthermore, there were scarcely a week's poor rations on board,
and countless leagues of ocean lay between them and the sunny Straits of
San Juan.

But Steve Marshall was in nowise dismayed. "We must risk the
cruiser--she can't steam eight knots--and run down the coast," he said.
"There are villages to the southwards, and food I'm bound to have."

Three days later they sighted a hamlet lying behind a long, surf-fringed
point, and Marshall glanced dubiously at the entrance. "Too much sea to
work the boats here," he said; "but that inlet would be a very tight
place to get out of in a hurry with the wind dead in. All the same,
we're bound to chance it." And they ran the Olga in.

A few of the simple fisher-folks came off on board, for the
"Chatadalers" have dealings with the sealers at times. Then they gazed
significantly at one another as they noted a certain mark branded into
the heel of the mast and along the rail, and would have gone ashore.
They knew there is no escape from the wrath of the Tsar, and that the
claws of the Russian Eagle strike far over land and sea. But the skipper
stood quietly between them and the gangway, and weapon in his hand, and
he conquered in the end. By fair means or foul, food he would have; and
in a curious mixture of languages a bargain was struck. Boats, loaded
with every coil of gear they could spare, pulled ashore, and came back
with such delicacies as black bread, dried fish, and seal-oil; and the
men sang at the oars as they drove them cheerfully into the teeth of the
chilly swell. Hope was rising in their hearts again. Then, towards the
close of the short Northern day, a trail crept out of the misty horizon,
and the skipper ground his teeth.

"We're a mile from the heads--wind an' sea dead in, an' no room to
beat," he said. "This craft can sail, old as she is. You've got to tow
her clear of the point before that fellow's there. It's a Russian
cruiser's hold or the open sea to-night."

The men ashore had also seen the smoke, and read its meaning plainly.
The last dory came flying alongside, cables were made fast, their last
anchor slipped, and at the cry of the mate. "All together walk her out;
they'll never see the way she went," the men settled down in grim
earnest to their work. Ormond was pulling No. 2 in the whaleboat, the
bending oars ripping through the water about him, and the gray sea
lapping noisily against the landings of the clinker dory ahead. At times
the schooner came shooting towards them with the towlines splashing
slackly in the transparent brine; then she dropped astern, and the
cables twanged and tautened into the likeness of iron bars, as though
they were made fast to an immovable rock.

In ten minutes Ormond's throat was parched and the roof of his mouth
dried up; but, setting his teeth hard, he bent over his oar until the
stout loom creaked within his hand. Once the schooner slid forward
almost on top of them and for a moment it seemed as if the iron-headed
martingale beneath her bowsprit would sweep some of the panting crew out
of existence when her head came down. But the boat forged ahead in time,
and they heard the hoarse voice of the mate. "Give her fits--everlasting
fits. Stretch out, bullies; the mist's comin' down."

Presently they reached more open water, and here the work grew harder
still. The long swell hove the boat almost on end, smote the bows of the
Olga, and checked her way in spite of their efforts. Ormond could hear
the short, gasping breath of the men about him, and the smothered curses
of him who pulled the stroke-oar; then from the lighter dory ahead there
rose the half-choked refrain of some wild Siwash chant, and the oar
seemed to swing a little less like bars of lead.

"There's a trickle of tide with us now. Keep it up--oh, keep it up!"
roared Fuller the mate, flinging his arms about upon the Olga's
forecastle, and the whaler scooped a hundredweight of water in over her
bows as they drove her through a sea. Ormond glanced forward over his
shoulder, and saw two slender spars swinging to and fro at a wide angle
as the cruiser crept up along the land, a trail of dingy smoke,
streaming seawards, streaked with red flame about the tip of the reeling
funnel. But he also saw the merciful fog rolling up in sheltering
wreaths.

On they went, wrenching upon the oars in grim silence now. Then there
was a rattle of halliards, and the voice of Skipper Marshall fell upon
their ears: "Ten minutes more and you're clear. Pull for your lives."

The thunder of the surf on the heads drowned the rattle and the thud of
the oars, when the welcome hail rose faintly above the song of the reef,
"Well done; alongside with you all;" and the two boats drove grinding
against the schooner's bends.

"Cast them adrift. Up foresail and jibs," roared the mate; and Ormond
leapt on deck. The big mainsail and gaff-topsail were slashing to and
fro; a group of men were hauling for dear life about the heel of the
foremast; and presently, with a great rattling and slatting, the
headsails went aloft. Then there was time to glance round, and as he
dashed the perspiration from his forehead Ormond stared with all his
eyes. The sea-fog was closing like a wall about the mouth of the inlet,
though it was thinner than it would be by-and-by, and through the
drifting haze he could see the spars of the cruiser rolling towards the
deeper water on the northern side.

Meanwhile the wheel was held a-weather and the Olga gathering way.
"That," said Marshall coolly, "is the fellow we showed our heels to in
the Flora twice, and this schooner can do it too. It's two boards to the
entrance, an' a fair wind outside. We're no mark for a gun in the haze.
Another drag on the mainsheet, Fuller."

So, hurling the brine in stinging showers across her forecastle-head as
she shouldered aside the long roll of the Pacific, the Olga drove
forward into the gathering mist, straight for the shore, towards which
the half-visible cruiser was heading fast.

Then a hoarse hail came down the wind, and they saw the shadowy bulk of
the Russian lie wallowing right across their course as she steamed in to
cut the schooner off.

"So far so good," said Marshall very deliberately; "there's more wind
outside. Let her come round, and we'll see if he'll follow us through
the surf."

The helm was put a-lee, there was a great rattling of headsails, the
fore-and-afters went over, and the Olga, gathering way on the other
tack, shot across in the direction of the spouting surf which swept the
opposite point. Again, a shout came out of the whiteness, followed by
the clang of an engine-room gong and the clatter of reversed engines,
and the steamer faded out of sight.

Marshall laughed softly as he clutched the jarring wheel. "That Russian
never thought we'd chance the surf on the reef," he said. "Guess they're
lowering boats to seize the wreck, or searchin' for us up the inlet,
now."

The mist came down thicker than ever, and presently the swell hove
itself on end about the schooner in steep-sided, whitetopped ridges,
which burst in clouds of spray over the forecastle-head and sluiced the
sloping deck.

"It's touch-an'-go," said Fuller the mate; "there's the cruiser yonder
if we go about, and how near the reef is to lee heaven knows--a trifle
closer, Steve."

"Haul lee sheets," said the skipper shortly, putting down the helm
half-a-spoke; and for a space the men scarcely dared to breathe as the
schooner wallowed and plunged through a white waste of curling sea.
Presently the rollers grew smoother a little, the lurches easier, and at
last the Olga swept swiftly southwards across the regular, deep-sea
heave, the foam boiling about her bows, and the streaky crests of the
undulations curled by the driving breeze rising in parallel ridges above
her high-lifted weather rail.

Then the dull boom of a gun rang out across the point they had left
behind, and Steve Marshall, easing his stiffened grasp upon the wheel,
cried, aloud, "Outwitted an' outsailed--euchred, by the powers!"

The story of the rest of that voyage would take too long to tell. The
Olga fell in with other schooners going north, whose skippers supplied
her with provisions, or this story would never have been written. In due
time she left the chill gray seas behind, and came out upon the
white-flecked, turquoise-tinted waters of the Pacific south of the
Skeena River, where the sea was bright with golden sunshine and the
heavens one vault of azure above. Then they swept along, wing and wing,
before a norther, down the west coast of British Columbia, where
glacier-crested ranges, snow peaks, and nameless valleys filled with
primeval forest opened up and slid away astern as the Olga cleft the
blue swell in her hurry south.

And all the time the pumps clanged night and day; there was much weary
labour and but little sleep, for the venerable ruin leaked like a large
colander now. At last, one morning, a glad shout went up as the mighty
Olympians rose to view, a white shimmer of snow far aloft in the
crystalline azure, and apparently cut off from all connection with the
earth below.

A week later the Olga sailed safely into the harbour of Victoria, B.C.,
that sunniest city of a beautiful land, and her crew were received like
those risen from the dead. The writer was afterwards told that the
schooner originally seized from Marshall was, through diplomatic efforts
sent back from Vladivostock; and the former owners of the rickety vessel
rechristened Olga commenced a curious action to recover her from the
salvors. Ormond, however, never quite knew how it was settled. He
returned to a different life, though he still looks back and sometimes
with a vague regret, to the days he dwelt among a strange and fearless
people--when he sailed with the free-lances of the Northern seas.



THE END



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