The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part II: The Landlooker
He arrived out of breath in a typical little mill town consisting of the usual unpainted houses, the saloons, mill, office, and general store. To the latter he addressed himself for information.
The proprietor, still sleepy, was mopping out the place.
"Does that boat stop here?" shouted Thorpe across the suds.
"Sometimes," replied the man somnolently.
"Only when there's freight for her."
"Doesn't she stop for passengers?"
"How does she know when there's freight?"
"Oh, they signal her from the mill--" but Thorpe was gone.
At the mill Thorpe dove for the engine room. He knew that elsewhere the clang of machinery and the hurry of business would leave scant attention for him. And besides, from the engine room the signals would be given. He found, as is often the case in north-country sawmills, a Scotchman in charge.
"Does the boat stop here this morning?" he inquired.
"Weel," replied the engineer with fearful deliberation, "I canna say. But I hae received na orders to that effect."
"Can't you whistle her in for me?" asked Thorpe.
"I canna," answered the engineer, promptly enough this time.
"Ye're na what a body might call freight."
"No other way out of it?"
Thorpe was seized with an idea.
"Here!" he cried. See that boulder over there? I want to ship that to Mackinaw City by freight on this boat."
The Scotchman's eyes twinkled appreciatively.
"I'm dootin' ye hae th' freight-bill from the office," he objected simply.
"See here," replied Thorpe, "I've just got to get that boat. It's worth twenty dollars to me, and I'll square it with the captain. There's your twenty."
The Scotchman deliberated, looking aslant at the ground and thoughtfully oiling a cylinder with a greasy rag.
"It'll na be a matter of life and death?" he asked hopefully. "She aye stops for life and death."
"No," replied Thorpe reluctantly. Then with an explosion, "Yes, by God, it is! If I don't make that boat, I'll kill you."
The Scotchman chuckled and pocketed the money. "I'm dootin' that's in order," he replied. "I'll no be party to any such proceedin's. I'm goin' noo for a fresh pail of watter," he remarked, pausing at the door, "but as a wee item of information: yander's th' wheestle rope; and a mon wheestles one short and one long for th' boat."
He disappeared. Thorpe seized the cord and gave the signal. Then he ran hastily to the end of the long lumber docks, and peered with great eagerness in the direction of the black smoke.
The steamer was as yet concealed behind a low spit of land which ran out from the west to form one side of the harbor. In a moment, however, her bows appeared, headed directly down towards the Straits of Mackinaw. When opposite the little bay Thorpe confidently looked to see her turn in, but to his consternation she held her course. He began to doubt whether his signal had been heard. Fresh black smoke poured from the funnel; the craft seemed to gather speed as she approached the eastern point. Thorpe saw his hopes sailing away. He wanted to stand up absurdly and wave his arms to attract attention at that impossible distance. He wanted to sink to the planks in apathy. Finally he sat down, and with dull eyes watched the distance widen between himself and his aims.
And then with a grand free sweep she turned and headed directly for him.
Other men might have wept or shouted. Thorpe merely became himself, imperturbable, commanding, apparently cold. He negotiated briefly with the captain, paid twenty dollars more for speed and the privilege of landing at Mackinaw City. Then he slept for eight hours on end and was awakened in time to drop into a small boat which deposited him on the broad sand beach of the lower peninsula.