Chapter XL
 

Cappy Ricks was, for the thousandth time since his voluntary retirement from active business some ten years previous, overwhelmed with his ancient responsibilities. Mr. Skinner had, under the insistent prodding of his wife, consented grudgingly to a vacation and had gone up into the Sierras to loaf and fish.

Scarcely had Skinner departed when one of the Blue Star steamers ran ashore on the Southern California coast, and Captain Matt Peasley left immediately for the scene of the disaster to superintend the work of floating the stranded vessel. This left Cappy riding herd on the destinies of the Blue Star ships, with Mr. Hankins, Skinner's understudy, looking after the lumber.

Prior to boarding the train, Matt Peasley had ventured the suggestion that Mr. Skinner be ordered by wire to return to town at once; but this veiled hint that the Blue Star ships could not be managed by the man who had built up the Blue Star Navigation Company had been received very coldly by the president emeritus of the Ricks interests.

"Young feller," Cappy informed his son-in-law testily, "I'll have you know I was managing the Blue Star Navigation Company quite some years before you quit wearing pinafores; so I guess, while you and Skinner are away from the office, we can manage to stagger along after a fashion."

"But I don't like to have you worried with business after you've retired--"

"Retired!" Cappy hooted. "Swell chance I've got to retire! I'll die in the harness whether I want to or not. Tut, tut, my boy! Don't be afraid to put me in as a pinch hitter for this organization. The worst I can do is to single--and I might clout a home run."

"But Skinner has been away two weeks--"

"Enough! It would be a bad thing to obsess Skinner with the notion that we can't get along without him. Then he never would take a rest; and I don't want any martyrs or neurasthenics round my office. You got anything on the fire that's liable to burn or boil over, before you get back?"

"Nothing to worry about, Cappy," Matt answered. "Our five-masted schooner Mindoro is the only vessel requiring immediate attention. She arrived at Sydney yesterday with lumber from Gray's Harbor, and as yet I haven't been able to get a satisfactory return cargo for her."

"What have you been holding out for?"

"I want to get a cargo for delivery in San Francisco if possible. The vessel will be ready to go on dry dock by the time she gets back here; and besides, I'm planning to put a semi-Diesel-type engine in her."

'"Not by a jugful! She wasn't built with a shaft log, and I won't have you weakening my Mindoro by cutting away her deadwood--"

"Tish! Tush! You're a back number, Cappy. They don't cut through the deadwood any more. They run the shaft out over her quarter and hang it on struts."

"She'll carry a helm--"

"She'll not; but if she does, let her. It'll give the helmsman something to do."

Cappy subsided, fearful that if he persisted he might be given new evidence of the fact that times had changed a trifle, here and there, since he had--ostensibly--gone on the retired list.

"Well, I'll take care of the Mindoro," he assured his son-in-law. "Early in life I adopted the woodpecker as my patron saint. Ever since, whenever I want anything I keep pecking away, and pretty soon I bust through somewhere."

The following morning, bursting with a sense of responsibility, Cappy came bustling down to the office and got on the job at eight-thirty. After looking through the mail he called up all the freight brokers in town and urged them to make a special effort to line up a San Francisco cargo for the Mindoro; then he summoned Mr. Skinner's stenographer and was busy dictating when Mr. J. Augustus Redell was announced by a youth from the general office. Cappy went to the door to welcome his beloved young friend and business enemy.

"Come in, Gus, my dear boy," he chirped, "and rest your face and hands." He turned to the stenographer. "That will be all, my dear, for the present. I can't dictate business secrets in the presence of this--ahem--harumph-h-h!--er--"

His desk telephone rang. Cappy took down the receiver and grunted.

"J. O. Heyfuss & Co. are calling you, Mr. Ricks," his private exchange operator announced.

Cappy smiled and nodded. J. O. Heyfuss & Co. were ship, freight and marine insurance brokers.

"Something doing for my Mindoro," he soliloquized aloud.

"Mr. Ricks?" a voice came over the wire.

"Hello there!" Cappy replied at the top of his voice. For some reason he always shouted when telephoning. "Ricks on the job! Whatja got for my Mindoro, Heyfuss?... Zinc ore? Never carried any before. Don't know what it looks like.... Yes; that freight rate is acceptable. We should have more, but God forbid that we should be considered human hogs... Yes.... Sure it's for discharge in San Francisco? ... All right. Close for it.... Good-bye!... Hey there, Heyfuss! Don't close in a hurry. See if you can't get the charterers to pay the towage over to her loading port. If they won't pay all, strike 'em for half."

He hung up without saying good-bye.

"Well, that's out of the way," he declared with satisfaction. "Just closed for a cargo of zinc ore from Australia to San Francisco ex our schooner Mindoro. Matt Peasley's been hunting wild-eyed for a cargo for her--scouring the market, Gus--and nothing doing! And here the old master comes along and digs up a cargo while you'd be saying Jack Robinson. By the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet, if you can show me how the rising generation is going to get by--"

He paused suddenly, leaned forward, and pointed an accusing finger at his visitor.

"Gus," he charged, "you're up to something. I can see it in your eyes. You look guilty."

Mr. Redell hitched his chair close to Cappy and with his index finger tapped the old gentleman three times on the right knee-three impressive taps.

"Alden P. Ricks," he began with equal impressiveness, "I have a scheme--"

Cappy chuckled and slapped his thin old thigh.

"I knew it! By the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet! Gus, if you ever come into my office and fail to unload a scheme on me I'll think you aren't enjoying your usual robust health. What are you going to start now? A skunk farm for cornering the market on Russian sable?"

"Cut out the hilarity. This is serious business, Cappy. I can show you where you and I can waltz into the Chicago Pit, make a killing on December wheat, and escape with a sizable wad before our identity is discovered."

Cappy, caught off his guard, blinked at the enormity of the prospect; but, remembering his dignity as a business man, he shook his head sadly and replied:

"Wheat! Wheat, eh? A lumber and shipping man monkeying with wheat? Not for little old Alden P. Ricks! No, sir! When I go speculating I stick to my specialties--lumber and ships. Did you ever hear of a gambler, winning a fortune at faro, who didn't drop his winnings on the ponies?"

"But this is a beautiful layout."

"I don't know anything about wheat and I'm too old to learn. Besides, I don't trust you, Gus. You're an infernal scoundrel; and experience has taught me that any time I take your tip and go in on a deal I have to step lively to keep from being walked on."

"But this time I'm free from guile. I won't stab you, Cappy."

"No use! The last boat just left, Augustus."

Mr. Redell, however, was made of rather stern stuff. He was a young man who never took "No" for an answer. Persistence was his most striking characteristic.

"Now listen," he implored. "Let the dead past bury itself. I give you my word of honor, Cappy, that this deal is on the level. Just let me put all my cards on the table while you take a look; then, if you don't want to come in, all I ask is your word of honor that you'll stay out while I round up a partner with red blood in his veins."

Cappy pricked up his ears at that. He saw that Redell was serious; he knew that once the latter passed his word of honor he never broke it. Still, Cappy did not wish to appear precipitate in his surrender; so he said weakly:

"I am against speculation."

"You mean you're against foolish speculation," Redell corrected him. "I take it, however, that you have no objection to playing a sure thing."

"Well," Gappy admitted, "in that event I might be persuaded. Nevertheless, I'm afraid of you. There's a fly in the ointment, even if I cannot see it. You owe me a poke, and you'll never rest until you've squared the account between us."

Mr. Redell held up his hands in abject distress.

"Cappy," he pleaded, "don't say that. You wrong me cruelly. It is in my power to stand idly by and let you assimilate a poke right now; but, just to show you I haven't any hard feelings, I'll do something nice for you instead."

"What do you mean--nice?"

"I'll save you money--not only today but for years to come; and I'll save your self-respect."

"Shoot!"

"Call up J. O. Heyfuss & Co. and tell them to take their cargo of zinc ore in bulk for your schooner Mindoro and go to the devil with it!"

"But, good gracious, boy, I have to get something for her homeward trip!"

"In this case nothing is better than something. Do you know anything about zinc ore?"

"Yes; as much as an Eskimo knows about the doctrine of transubstantiation."

"I thought so. Well, I'll enlighten you. Zinc ore is blamed near as heavy as lead, and it's as fine as cement. Load it in a ship in bulk and, what with the pitching and rolling of a vessel on a long voyage, she opens up every seam and crack in her interior; then this powdered ore sifts into the skin of the ship and down into her bilge, and you'll never be able to get it out without tearing the ship apart. Why, after a vessel has freighted a cargo of zinc ore there may be as much as fifty tons left in her after she's supposed to be discharged; and, of course, thereafter she'll carry that much less cargo than she did before. Besides, the consignees are liable to send you a bill for the shortage; you can gamble your head they'll deduct it from the freight bill."

"Holy sailor!" Cappy was appalled.

"Why," Redell continued, "I'm surprised at your ignorance, Cappy!"

"And I'm amazed at your intelligence! Where did you get all this zinc-ore dope?" Cappy challenged. "How do you know it's true?"

"I got it from Captain Matt Peasley. I heard him give it to J. O. Heyfuss on the floor of the Merchants' Exchange two weeks ago, when Heyfuss tried to sneak up on his blind side and hang that cargo of zinc ore on him. I guess they weren't importing much zinc ore when you were active in business, Cappy, or you'd have known all about it. You see the plot, don't you? As soon as Heyfuss learned that Matt Peasley and Skinner had gone away, leaving a defenseless old man on the job, he organized himself to spear you."

"The shameless son of a sea cook! By gravy, Gus, you're my friend!"

"Need any more proof?"

"Not a speck."

"Then I'll give you some. Call up Heyfuss and declare that ore cargo off; after you've done that I'll tell you where you can get something better. Moreover, you can close the deal yourself and save the brokerage."