Chapter XXXV
 

Shortly after noon on the day of his small triumph over the West Coast Trading Company, Cappy Ricks bustled up California Street, bound for luncheon with the Bilgewater Club.

On this day, of all days, Cappy would not have missed luncheon with the Bilgewater Club for a farm. As he breezed along there was a smile on his ruddy old face and a lilt in his kind old heart, for he was rehearsing his announcement to his youthful friends of how he had but recently tanned the hide of a brother! He almost laughed aloud as he pictured himself solemnly relating, in the presence of J. Augustus Redell and Live Wire Luiz, the tale of the ill-favored spruce, excusing his own mendacity the while on the ground that he wasn't a mind reader; that if the West Coast Lumber Company desired northern spruce they should have stipulated northern spruce; that, as alleged business men, it was high time they were made aware of the ancient principle of caveat emptor, which means, as every schoolboy knows, that the buyer must protect himself in the clinches and breakaways. And lastly, he planned to claim it the solemn duty of the aged to instruct the young and ignorant in the hard school of experience.

Judge, therefore, of his disappointment when, on entering the lobby of the Merchants' Exchange Building, on the two top floors of which the Commercial Club is situated, he encountered Redell and Live Wire Luiz leaving the elevator.

The West Coast Trading Company had offices in the same building and, as Redell carried a plethoric suit case, while Live Wire Luiz followed with a small hand bag, Cappy realized they were bound for parts unknown. In consequence of which he realized he had rehearsed to no purpose his expose of the pair before the Bilgewater Club. He halted the partners and secured a firm grip on the lapel of each.

"Cowards!" he sneered. "Running out on me, eh? By Judas Priest, I just knew you didn't dast to stay and hear me tell the boys about that spruce. Drat you! The next time you'll know the difference between attar of roses and California spruce!"

Redell put down his suit case, pulled out his watch, glanced at it and then at his partner.

"Shall I tell him, Luiz?" he queried.

Live Wire Luiz thereupon consulted his watch, scratched his ear and said:

"Friend of my heart, do you theenk eet ees safe?"

"Oh, yes. He isn't a bit dangerous, Luiz. He's lost all his teeth and all he can do now is sit and bay at the moon."

Live Wire Luiz shrugged.

"I theenk maybe so you are right, amigo mio. The steamer she will go to depart in half an hour, an' that ees not time for thees ol' high-binder to do somet'ing. Eet ees what you call one stiff li'l' order. I admit thees spruce bandit ees pretty smart, but--" again Live Wire Luiz shrugged his expressive shoulders--"he ees pretty ol', no? I theenk to myself he have lose--what you call heem? ah, yes, he have lose hees punch!"

"I fear he has, Luiz; so I'll tell him. At least the knowledge will gravel him and take all the joy out of that stinking little spruce swindle of his."

"'Twon't neither!" Gappy challenged. "I stung you there--drat your picture!--and I'm glad I did it. I rejoice in my wickedness. Cost you five hundred dollars for making a monkey out of the old man in that grape-stake deal, Gus."

"Why," said Redell wonderingly, "I thought you'd forgiven me that, Cappy."

"So I have; but I haven't forgotten. Expect me to lose my self- respect and forget about it? No, sir! When I go into a deal and emerge in the red, I take a look at my loss-and-gain account and forget it; but when I'm ravished of my self--respect-wow! Look out below and get out from under! In-fer-nal young scoundrel! If I don't show you two before I die that I haven't lost my punch I'll come back from the grave to ha'nt you. Go on and spin your little tale, Augus-tus. You can't tell me anything that'll make me mad. What you got on your mind besides your hair, Gus? Out with it, boy; out with it! I'm listening."

And Cappy came close to Redell and inclined his head close to the young fellow's breast; whereupon Redell put his lips close to Cappy's ear and answered hoarsely:

"I'm going to Papeete to bid in that sunken German steamer, Valkyrie."

Cappy nodded.

"Huh!" he said. "Is that all? Well, when you return from Papeete you're going to take another journey right away."

"Where?"

"Into the bankruptcy court first, and then up to the Home for the Feeble-Minded. On the level, boy, you're overdue at the foolish farm."

"I'll take a chance, Cappy. All you old graybeards can do is sit on the fence and decry the efforts of the rising generation. You just croak and knock. Of course I admit that once on a time an opportunity couldn't fly by you so fast you wouldn't get some of the tail feathers; but that was a long time ago."

He paused and glanced at his partner. Sorrowfully Live Wire Luiz tapped his forehead with his brown, cigarette-stained forefinger.

"Senile decay!" Redell murmured.

"Sure; I bet you, Mike!" Live Wire Luiz answered.

He wagged his head lugubriously, turned aside and affected to wipe away a vagrant tear with his salmon-colored silk handkerchief.

"Look here!" Cappy rasped. "This thing is getting personal. Never mind about my years, you pup. If my back is bent a trifle it's from carrying a load of experience and other people's mistakes. And never mind about my noodle! It may have a few knots and shakes in it, but they're tight and sound, and it's free of pitch pockets, wane and rotten streaks; so this old head grades as merchantable timber still.

"As for your head, Gus, and that of this human firecracker with you, both have streaks of sap round the edges, and I'll prove it to you yet. No; on second thought I don't have to prove it. You've already done that yourself! You're going to Papeete to try to bid in the Valkyrie, and she's junk!"

"Partly." Redell admitted. "She's been under water about two years and I suppose the teredo have digested her upper works by now; but they can be rebuilt quickly and without a great deal of expense."

"How about her boilers? You'll have to retube them."

"I don't think so. I was talking with Captain Hippard, of the Morrison-Hippard Line. They had the steamer Chinook under water a year in Norton Sound, but they raised her and brought her to San Francisco under her own steam. You know, Cappy, it's the combination of water and air that makes iron and steel rust. It seems that when a boiler is under water and not exposed to the air it rusts very slowly; also, the rust is like a soft film--it doesn't pit and scale off in great flakes. And a couple of years under water will not do any appreciable damage to the Valkyrie's boilers. The Chinook is running yet, notwithstanding the fact that fifteen years ago she was submerged for a year."

"Huh!" Cappy grunted.

"The same condition, of course, holds true with regard to her hull, only more so," Redell continued. "The paint will protect the hull perfectly. Of course if, after getting her up, she is permitted to lie exposed to the air, the soft film of rust will promptly harden and scale off and she'll go to glory in a few months. However, nothing like that will happen, because the minute she's up she'll be thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed and painted. Of course the asbestos cover will have peeled off her boilers, but even at that I'll bring her to San Francisco under her own steam. She'll just be ungodly hot below decks and a hog for coal until the boilers are re-covered."

Cappy sighed. He was not prepared to combat this argument, for he had a sneaking impression Redell was right. However, he returned undaunted to the attack.

"She's shot full of holes," he declared.

"She has one hole through her, and when she's loaded light that hole is above water line. The wrecking vessel that goes down to salve her will have steel plates, tools and mechanics aboard, and new plates can be put in temporarily. And if that cannot be done those holes can be patched with planking and cemented over."

"Well, all right. Grant that. But think of her engines, Gus. Think of those fine, smooth bearings and polished steel rods all corroded and pitted by salt water. The water may not have a disastrous effect on the boilers and hull, but an engine can't stand any rust at all and still remain one hundred per cent efficient. I tell you I know, Gus. I had my Amelia Ricks submerged on Duxbury Reef for a week; then I hauled her off and she lay on the tide flats in Mission Bay another three weeks until I could patch her up and float her into the dry dock. Do you know what it cost me to make her engines over again? Thirteen thousand dollars, young man--and, at that, they're nothing to brag of now."

"Quite right; but that's because you didn't employ a German engineer and tell him you were going to put the Amelia Ricks on Duxbury Reef. Are you familiar with the characteristics of German engineers, Cappy?"

Cappy threw up both hands.

"I'm neutral, Gus. Between them and the French it's a case of heads I win, tails you lose."

"No, no, Cappy. You're wrong. The Germans are a careful, thrifty, painstaking, systematic race, and the chief of the Valkyrie was the flower of the flock. When that little French gunboat captured her this chief engineer looked into the future and saw himself and the Valkyrie interned indefinitely--and he didn't like it. It just broke his heart to think of a stranger messing round among his engines; so the instant he got into Papeete and blew down his boilers he did a wise thing. He knew the war risk insurance would probably cover the Valkyrie's loss as a war prize, but there was a chance that her German owners might send one of their hyphenated brethren down to Papeete to buy her in the prize court; and if that happened the chief wanted them to have a good ship. Perhaps, also, he figured on getting his old job back after the war. At any rate he got out a barrel of fine heavy grease and slobbered up his engines for fair."

It was too much. Cappy Ricks was too fine a sport not to acknowledge a beating; he was too generous not to rejoice in a competitor's gain.

"You lucky, lucky scoundrel!" he murmured in an awed voice. "Not enough salt water will get through that grease to hurt those engines. Gus, how did you find this all out?"

"Well, you can bet your whiskers, Cappy, I didn't depend on hearsay evidence and water-front reporters to dig it up for me. The minute I heard her sea cocks had been opened and that her funnels and masts were sticking up out of the harbor I concluded I was interested; so I sent Bill Jinks, of our office, down to Papeete to get me some first-hand information. The chief of the Valkyrie is interned there, of course."

"May mad dogs bite me! Why in the name of all that's sweet and holy didn't I have sense enough to do that?" Cappy mourned.

"You have lose the punch!" chirped Live Wire Luiz, and Cappy glared at him.

"She's an honest vessel, Cappy."

"An' what you s'pose she have in her?" Live Wire Luiz demanded. "Oh, notheeng very much, Senor Ricks. Just two t'ousand tons of phosphate."

"Worth ten or twelve dollars a ton, Cappy."

"An' t'irteen hundred tons of the good coal to bring her to San Francisco, Ai, Santa Maria!" Live Wire Luiz blew a kiss airily into space and added: "I die weeth dee-light!"

"You haven't got her yet," Cappy snapped viciously.

"No; but we'll get her all right," Redell declared confidently.

"How'll you get her?"

"We've only one real competitor to buck--an Australian steamship company. They're crazy to get her; and as there are no French bidders on this side of the world, naturally and in view of the present condition of world politics the French authorities in Papeete are pulling for the Britisher. Jinks is now in Papeete and I'm about to start for there at one o'clock. Two bids, Cappy; I'll be the dark horse and file my bid at the last minute, after I've sized up the lay of the land. But, before I do so, I'm going to take the representative of that Australian steamship company into my confidence and find out what he's going to bid. For instance, now, Cappy, if you were bidding against me, how high would you go?"

"She's a long way from nowhere," Cappy replied thoughtfully. "It means sending a wrecking steamer down there with a lot of expert wreckers, divers, mechanics and carpenters; it means lumber for cofferdam and pontoons; it means donkey engines, cables, pumps, the stress of wind and wave--"

"She lies in a protected cove, Cappy; the mean rise and fall of the tide, so close to the equator, is about eighteen inches, and the water is so clear you can always see what the divers are doing. Forget the stress of wind and wave."

"Forty thousand dollars would be my top figure if I were the Australian bidder," Cappy declared, and added to himself: "But, as Alden P. Ricks, seventy-five might not stagger me in view of the present freight rates."

"Just what I figured," Redell answered. "She'll cost us two hundred thousand dollars before we get her in commission again. I figure the Australian people will not go over forty thousand dollars. They won't figure Jinks as a heavyweight. I told him to create the impression that he was a professional wrecker--a sort of fly-by-night junk dealer, who would buy the vessel if he could get her at a great bargain. Then I'll drop quietly into Papeete, and at the eleventh hour fifty-ninth minute I'll slip in a bid that will top the Australian's. If by any chance Jinks' bid should also top the Australian's I'll just forfeit the certified check for ten per cent of my bid, run out and leave the ship to Jinks, the next highest bidder. The chances are I'll make a few thousand dollars at that."

"How do you purpose raising her--provided you are the successful bidder?"

"Well, she has four hatches and she lies on an even keel. I'll build a coffer dam on her deck round these four hatches and pump her out. If we have enough pumps we can pump her out faster than the water can leak in under the coffer dam. When I've lightened her somewhat I'll kick her into the shore, little by little, until she lies in shallow water with her bulwarks above the surface. Then I'll patch the holes in her, pump her out--and up she'll come, of course."

"You say that so glibly," Gappy growled, "one would almost think you could whistle it."

"Don't feel sore, Cappy. Do you know what a vessel of her age and class is worth nowadays? Well, I'll tell you. About sixty dollars a ton, dead weight capacity--and the Valkyrie can carry seven thousand tons; that's four hundred and twenty thousand dollars--"

"If you can get her up," Cappy interrupted.

"If I bid her in I'll get her up. Don't worry."

'"It'll clean you of your bank roll to do it."

"Of course. Luiz and I aren't millionaires like you; so we'll just form a corporation and call it the S. S. Valkyrie Company and sell stock in our venture. I have you down right now for a ten-thousand-dollar subscription at the very least, though you can have more if you want it."

"Gus," Cappy pleaded, "if you bid that boat in for forty thousand dollars I'll give you ten thousand dollars for your bargain and reimburse you for all the expense you've been put to."

"Nothing doing, Cappy."

"I'll make it--let me see--I'll make it twenty thousand."

"You waste your breath. She'll pay for herself the first year she's in commission."

"I'll furnish the sinews of war, Gus, for a half interest in her. Let me add her to the Blue Star Fleet and you'll never regret it."

"Sorry, Cappy; but Luiz and I are ambitious. We want to get into the steamship business ourselves."

"Well, then, I've offered to do the fair thing by you two lunatics," Cappy declared with a great air of finality. "So now I'll deliver my ultimatum: I'm going to keep the Valkyrie and not give you two as much as one little piece of her. Yes, sir! I'm going to send a representative to Papeete and match you and that Australian chap for your shoe-strings. Gus, you know me! If I ever go after a thing and don't get it, the man that takes it away from me will know he's been in a fight."

"Indeed, I know it, Cappy--which is why I kept this information carefully to myself. However, I guess you'll not get in on this good thing."

"Why?"

"You're too late for the banquet."

"Not one leetle hope ees left for you, Cappy Reeks," Senor Almeida asserted. "The Moana, on which my good partner have engaged passage to-day, ees the last steamer which shall arrive to Papeete before the bids shall be open. The next steamer, Capitan Reeks ees arrive too late."

"Yes; and the Moana sails in just twenty-five minutes, Cappy. If you're thinking of sending a man down to bid against me you'll have to step lively."

Cappy Ricks was now beside himself; this gentle, good-natured heckling had made of him a venerable Fury.

"I'll cable my bid!" he shrilled.

"No you won't Cappy, for the reason that there is no cable to Tahiti."

"Then I'll wireless it!"

"Well, you can try that, Cappy. Unfortunately, however, the only wireless station in Tahiti is a little, old, one-cat-power set. It can receive your message, but it can't send one that will reach the nearest wireless station--and that's at Honolulu. And until the bank in Tahiti can confirm drafts by wireless I imagine it will not pay them on presentation."

Cappy surrendered. He couldn't stand any more.

"Good-bye, Gus," he said. "Good luck to you! If you get that vessel you'll deserve her, and when you're forming the S.S. Valkyrie Company I'll head the list of stock subscribers with a healthy little chunk. You know me, Gus! I'm the old bell mare in shipping circles; a lot of others will follow where I lead."

"I forgive you the spruce deal, Cappy. You're an awful pirate; but, for all that, you're a grand piece of work. God bless you!" And Redell put his arm round the old man affectionately. "Good-bye."

And, followed by Live Wire Luiz, who was going to the dock to see his partner aboard the Moana, Redell disappeared into California Street.

"Dammit!" Cappy soliloquized bitterly. "I can't eat lunch now. One bite would choke me."