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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.: 1000601h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2010
Date most recently updated: October 2010

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How They Took The Olga Out
A Story Of The Pacific Sealers

by

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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