Chapter LIX
 

The campaign for the Liberty bonds brought Cappy an appointment from the mayor as captain of a corps of volunteer bond salesmen to work the wholesale lumber and shipping trade, and for three weeks the old gentleman was as busy as the proverbial one-armed paper hanger with the itch. He was obsessed with a fear that the bond issue would be under-subscribed by about a billion and a half and result in the United States of America being accorded a hearty Teutonic horse laugh. Consequently he made five separate subscriptions on his own account, and just before the lists closed on the last day he was again overcome with apprehension and subscribed for an additional ten thousand dollars' worth for his grandson! When the result of the Liberty-bond campaign was made known he almost wept with joy and gave a wonderful dinner to his corps of salesmen, after which he went down to his ranch to rest for a week and see what Sam Daniels was up to.

The morning he returned to town, prepared to leap, heart and soul into the hundred-million-dollar Red Cross drive, he had a visit from his port captain, Michael J. Murphy.

"Well, sir," Murphy announced, "I've cleaned up all the little details in my department, your new port captain is on the job, and I'm about to go over to the naval training station on Goat Island and hold up my hand again. But before I go, sir, I want to express to you something of what I feel for what you've done for me and mine."

"Tut, tut. Not another peep out of you, sir!" Cappy commanded. To be thanked for anything always made him feel uncomfortable. "What branch of the service do you hope to get into, Mike?"

"I want to get aboard a destroyer, sir, though they're the divil an' all to live aboard. They offer the best chance for action. Patrolling the submarine zone, you know."

"Gosh," Cappy groaned; "everybody's got the submarines on the brain, and I'm tagging along with the rest. Mike, I swear I can't sleep nights, thinking of this war. It breaks my heart to realize I'm out of it. And because I'm a shipping man, naturally my fool brain runs to submarines and how to control them. Mike, I have a great yearning to sink a submarine; the screams of those scoundrels aboard her would be music to my ears."

"It's a serious problem," Murphy declared soberly; "but I'm hoping our Yankee ingenuity will solve it."

"Well, we haven't done it to date, and in the meantime all the nut inventors in the world are sending their nut ideas in to the National Council of Defense. Of course I have a bright idea too. I'm a great hand at hatching cute schemes, you know. However, I differ from the average submarine nut in this--that I want to try out my theory in practice before submitting it to an expectant world. Still, I'd need you to help me; and now that you're going into the navy I suppose I'll have to forget it."

"I seem to remember a scheme of yours that resulted in the capture of a submarine last year," Murphy reminded the old man. "That was a bully scheme, and I'm willing to wager that the head which produced it can produce another just as good. Tell me your plan for eliminating submarines, Mr. Ricks."

"My scheme doesn't contemplate a continuous performance," Cappy hastened to explain, "but it might work out once or twice--and in this great international emergency anything is worth trying once. I could demonstrate my theory in about two months--with your help."

"Then," declared Michael J. Murphy, "I'll wait until you give the demonstration before enlisting in the navy."

"Bully for you, Mike! I'll declare Terry Reardon in on the experiment also, for the reason that one of the ingredients required is a chief engineer with courage to spare. Now then, for my scheme: Do you know the Costa Rica?"

"That old steamer that used to run to Panama for the Pacific Mail?"

"The same."

"What about her?"

"She's in the bone yard--laid up for keeps, Mike. Her plates are so thin and soft the least jar would punch a hole in her; she's wrecked and strained from fifty years of service; her engines are worn out, her boilers are burned out, her gear is antiquated, and even in these times of abnormal freight rates she's too far gone to patch up and keep running. They kicked her up in the mud of Oakland Inner Harbor yesterday, and there she'll be stripped of everything of value and left to rot. My plan, Mike, is to buy the old Costa Rica for a couple of thousand dollars, turn Terence Reardon and his gang loose on her engines and boilers for a couple of weeks and take the old coffin out for one final voyage. She can make eight or nine knots in good weather, and if she's torpedoed the loss will be trifling. Will you run the risk and take her out for me, Mike?"

"Yes, sir. What for?"

"As a decoy."

"I don't understand."

"We'll put a hand-picked crew aboard her, Mike; we'll arm her fore and aft with six-inch guns, which we can readily get from the navy now that it's the fashion to arm merchantmen; and then go cruising in the submarine zone. You can pick up a few old navy men for a gun crew and train some of the Costa Rica's crew, can't you?"

"If we can get somebody to give me the range and manage to get the gun loaded somehow, I'll do the gun pointing; with half a chance I'll guarantee results."

"And that is exactly what I plan to give you--half a chance," Cappy declared enthusiastically. "The Costa Rica isn't worth two hoots in a hollow, but she still looks enough like a steamer to attract submarines; and during this fine summer weather we can chance a final voyage with the old wreck."

"Where do you get this 'we' stuff, Mr. Ricks?" Mike Murphy queried bluntly. "You're not figuring on going to sea in that coffin, are you?"

"I most certainly am so figuring. I take my fun where I find it, Mike, and if I'm to plan and pay for this experiment--then, by gravy, I'm going to be on deck to watch it work out if it's the last act of my sinful career."

"But if they fire on us you may be killed."

"We'll be firm' back at 'em, won't we? And if I'm killed in action, won't that be a fitting finish for a Ricks?"

"We may be afloat in an open boat for a week. I don't want you to die of exposure, sir."

"Forget it, Mike! I've been charged off to profit and loss for so many years it makes me ill to think of them. And you remember, my dear Mike,

   "'To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late;
    And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds
    For the ashes of his fathers
    And the temples of his gods?'

Don't argue with me, Mike. My mind is quite made up. I'm going into action in this war, for, as I said before, I'll try anything once--particularly when it isn't very expensive and I can afford the luxury. We're going to buy the Costa Rica, take her into the submarine zone and lose her, but, by the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet, we'll take a submarine with us!"

"Not if the German sees us first."

Cappy leaned forward and laid his index finger impressively on Michael J. Murphy's knee. "That's the only way we can hope to win," he declared. "We must make certain the submarine sees us first. Mike, a German is a rabid disciple of law and order; anything out of the usual run of things upsets him terribly; he never makes allowance for the unexpected or for the other fellow's point of view. To be more exact, Mike, I figure that German psychology is the only kind of psychology a German can understand. And to tell you the truth, Mike," he added musingly, "there are blamed few people who can understand mine."

Michael J. Murphy nodded a vigorous indorsement to this last remark, and Cappy went on: "Do you think any proud and arrogant skipper of a German submarine would ever suspect an American citizen of such a harebrained scheme as the sending out of a rusty, creaking old rattletrap of a steamer that can't get out of her own way, for the avowed purpose of destroying him and his sub? No sir! His microphones will tell him, while he is still totally submerged, that his approaching prey is a slow poke and cannot possibly outrun him; then he'll come up, take a look and clinch his conclusions--after which he will attack."

"True for you sir. He'll launch his torpedo and dive before I can get a shot at him or correct my range to hit him; then the torpedo will hit us and we'll go up like a shower of mush--probably with half a dozen men killed and nothing accomplished in the way of a return swat."

"That was the program a few months ago," Cappy retorted triumphantly. "Have you noticed, however, that since merchantmen have been armed the submarines are more and more prone, when attacking in daylight, to pursue a steamer at a reasonable distance and rake her with shell fire? If a vessel is fired on and her skipper, looking back, notes the position of the submarine and realizes that he cannot possibly outrun her and that she outranges him, what does he do, Mike?"

"He does the sensible thing. Heaves to to avoid loss of life, gets his men into the boats and abandons his ship to the Hun."

"Precisely! And if the Hun thinks he is not likely to be disturbed for a couple of hours, what does he do?"

"Why," said Murphy, "he comes aboard, removes all the stores he can--particularly engine oil--and strips the vessel of all her brass, copper and bronze fittings. These metals are very scarce in Germany and they need all they can get in the manufacture of munitions."

"Correct! And we must bear in mind, Mike, the fact that a German is naturally thrifty; if he can sink a ship with shell fire or bombs set in her bilges he will not waste on her a torpedo that costs from ten to twenty thousand dollars. Now, will he?"

"Well, I wouldn't, Mr. Ricks."

"Then my plan is absurdly simple. We merely provide a gorgeous opportunity for the enemy; we inculcate in him the idea that he is about to pick a soft one--then: Alas, poor Yorick!"

Michael J. Murphy rose and put on his hat. "Where are you going, Mike?" Cappy demanded.

"I'm going up to the navy yard at Mare Island," the port captain declared, "to see if I cannot pick up a couple of six-inch rifles of the model they used when I was in the navy. They're obsolete now, but I understand them--and while I'm getting the guns I'll pick up four or five old navy men. Leave it to me, Mr. Ricks."

"We'll give 'em hell!" shouted Cappy.

"We will!" quoth Michael J. Murphy with conviction.