Chapter VII. Chums
 

It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and Captain Josh was busy in his little work-shop at the side of his house. He was in a hurry, and his big hands moved swiftly and deftly as he cut the cotton or tied a piece of string. Once or twice he stepped back to view his work, and then a pleased expression appeared upon his face. Occasionally his eyes turned toward the little window above the work-bench until they rested upon the road, leading from the main highway to his house. The captain was expecting company, and this was something remarkable at "The Anchorage," the name of the snug cottage by the riverside.

Within the house Mrs. Britt, too, was busy, and as she moved about the kitchen, her step was lighter than it had been for years. She had just finished making a batch of doughnuts, not the lean kind, mostly holes, but big fat ones, coated with sugar, like thick frost upon the window pane in winter. She was now making apple pies, the kind where the juice runs out into the oven, and some of it sticks to the plate.

Mrs. Britt was known throughout the parish as an excellent cook, though of late years few people were ever allowed the privilege of tasting her dainties. This was her husband's fault, and not hers. She was naturally of a sociable disposition, and fond of company. But Captain Josh's crankiness had antagonised every person in Hillcrest, and it was Mrs. Britt who suffered the most. But she was loyal to her husband, and if people would not come to her home, she would not go to theirs.

At one time Captain Josh had been the most agreeable of companions, and his return from a voyage was always a red-letter day in the parish. His ringing laugh was heard at the store, and every evening his house was filled with neighbours, who dropped in to have a smoke, and listen to the yarns of the old seaman.

But two events coming close together produced a great change in the captain. One was the absence of his only son, Jimmy, who had gone far away to the northland, and never wrote home to his parents. The other, was the loss of his vessel, the Flying Queen, a three-masted schooner, which, loaded with a valuable cargo, lost her bearings, and went ashore in a heavy fog. Owing to Captain Josh's excellent past record, the shipping company was most lenient. He was permitted to retire with a moderate allowance. This amount, together with what he obtained from his few acres of land, and the fish and the fur he took, was quite sufficient to keep him and his wife in moderate comfort.

The loss of his vessel, followed by his retirement, was a severe blow to the captain. He was too old to take command of another ship for new owners, and he chafed at his enforced stay on land. He longed for the sea, for nowhere else did he feel so much at home. His pride was hurt as well. He felt keenly the humiliation, and he believed that his neighbours laughed at him behind his back. Thus for years he brooded over his troubles until they became a vital part of his very being, and soured his former jolly disposition.

There was one redeeming feature, however, to Captain Josh, and that was his intense sympathy for any unfortunate creature, whether man or beast. Let any dumb brute be abused, and it aroused the captain to intense indignation. And so when he found that most of the people in Hillcrest were turned against Parson Dan's lad, simply because he was a waif, he naturally took an interest in the boy, which increased the more people talked. The climax to his interest was reached the day he took Rod's part against Tom Dunker.

On this Saturday morning Captain Josh had tied the last string, and cut off the ends close to the knot. He then glanced once more through the window, and his eyes brightened as he saw the little lad he was expecting not far from the house.

Rod was not walking very fast, for he was on new, and hitherto forbidden ground, and, notwithstanding the invitation, he was not altogether sure of the reception he would receive. He was a trim, looking lad in his well-fitting suit, as clean and neat as Mrs. Royal's hands could make it, while a large straw hat covered his curly hair. He wore neither shoes nor stockings, and his feet and legs were as brown as the sun could make them.

Captain Josh was at the shop door to receive him.

"Ye're late, lad," was his only greeting.

"I'm sorry, captain," was the reply, "but I had to go to the store for grandma. Oh!" and he stopped short as his eyes rested upon the fine full-rigged schooner sitting upon the work-bench.

"How d'ye like it?" the captain asked, delighted at Rod's interest.

"Great!" and the boy stepped cautiously forward, as if afraid that the white sails were wings; to bear the wonderful thing away. "Who made it?" he whispered.

"Oh, some fool."

"You?"

"What! d'ye call me a fool?" the captain roared, looking so fierce that Rod shrank back a step.

"No, no, no. I didn't mean that. I only, I only----"

"I know, lad, I know," and the captain laughed heartily. "Ye didn't mean any harm. Yes, I made her years ago fer another boy. She's been lyin' here a long time, and so t'other day I got her down, cleaned her up, and put on new sails, thinkin' that perhaps ye might like her."

"What! For me?" Rod asked in surprise.

"Sure, if ye'd like to have her."

Would Rod like to have her? His eyes sparkled, and his hands trembled with excitement as he examined his treasure. What a wonder it was.

"What's her name?" he asked.

"The Flyin' Queen, after the schooner I lost."

"Will she sail?"

"Y'bet. Let's launch her."

From the window Mrs. Britt watched the two as they walked down to the shore. She recalled the day, over twenty years ago, when another little lad had trotted as eagerly as Rod by the captain's side, and it was to sail a small boat, too. Her eyes grew misty as her thoughts went back to that scene. But mingled with this sadness was a feeling of thankfulness that her husband had taken such a strong liking to Rod. Not since Jimmy left had he done such a thing, and she was hopeful that this child would unconsciously change him back to the genial big-hearted man he was when she married him.

Rod was delighted with the Flying Queen, and wading in the water to his knees, he sailed her along the shore. The captain had a pickerel net to look after, which kept him busy for some time. But he missed scarcely anything that Rod was doing, and he was greatly pleased at the boy's delight.

"Pull her ashore now, lad," he at length ordered, "and let's go fer a sail."

"What, in the Roaring Bess?" Rod eagerly asked, as he glanced toward the yacht fretting gently at her anchor a short distance away.

"Sure thing. Dinner won't be ready fer an hour, so we'll take a spin around fer awhile."

Rod could hardly believe his senses. How often he had looked upon the Roaring Bess from the respectable distance of the main road. To have a sail in her had been his one great ambition. While lying in bed he had often imagined himself skimming over the water, with the sail, big and white, bending above him. Now his dream had really come true, and here he was at last sitting by Captain Josh's side, watching him as he headed the boat upstream. A gentle breeze was drifting in from westward, sufficient to fill the sail and send the Roaring Bess speeding over the water. A deep sigh escaped Rod's lips.

"Hey, what's wrong?" the captain cried. "Gittin' tired, and want to go home?"

"Oh, no, no," was the emphatic reply. "I sighed because I am so happy."

"H'm. That's it, eh? I thought people generally whistled or laughed when they are happy."

"Is that what you do, Captain Josh, when you're happy?"

"Me? I'm never happy."

"Why, I'd be happy all the time if I had a boat like this."

"Ye would? Well, take the tiller, then, while I fill me pipe."

A new thrill of joy swept through Rod's entire being as he clutched the wooden handle and moved it to left or right as the captain ordered. Never did any commander in charge of the largest vessel feel greater pride than did the young helmsman. His face glowed, and his eyes sparkled with excitement, while the breeze tossed his wavy hair.

Captain Josh watched him out of the corner of his eye as he puffed away at his short-stemmed pipe.

"Ye'll make a good sailor some day, lad," he remarked. "Ye've got the eye fer sich business."

"That's what I'm going to be," was the reply. "I'll be a captain, and have a big ship of my own. I'm going to call her the Roaring Bess, and I'll take you along with me."

"I'd like to go well enough," and the old man's gaze wandered off into space, "but I guess my sailin' days'll be over by that time. But here we are back home again. Betsey'll be waitin' dinner fer us."

And what a dinner that was! Rod remembered it long afterwards, and how Mrs. Britt sat there smiling upon him, and urging him to have "just one more piece of pie, and another cruller." Never before had he felt so important. He was the guest being treated with such respect. When holding the tiller that morning he had longed for Sammie Dunker and the rest of the boys to see him. So now, sitting near the bluff old captain and his wife, he desired the same thing. He felt quite sure that no other boy in the whole parish had been so honoured, and if his schoolmates ever heard of it, they would be sure to look upon him as a person of great importance.

When dinner was over, Captain Josh pushed back his chair, filled and lighted his pipe. Rod was surprised that he did not return thanks when they were through, as was the custom at the rectory.

"I'm very thankful for that dinner, Mrs. Josh," he remarked.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, dear," was the reply.

"Yes, I did. It was so good that I want to thank God for it. Do you mind?"

"No, certainly not," and Mrs. Britt glanced anxiously toward her husband. But when she saw the captain take his pipe out of his mouth, and bow his shaggy head while the boy repeated the few words of thanks he had been taught, a feeling of gratitude came into her heart, and her eyes became moist.

There was silence for a few minutes when Rod finished. The captain puffed at his pipe, while Mrs. Britt began to clear away the dishes.

"Kin ye swim, lad?" Captain Josh suddenly asked, in his deep gruff voice.

"No, I can't," was the somewhat nervous reply.

"Ever been in the water?"

"Oh, yes. Lots of times."

"And ye can't swim. Well, ye'll have to git over that if ye're round where I am."

"Can you swim, Captain Josh?" Rod asked.

"Ho, ho," and the old man leaned back in his chair and shook with laughter. "Kin I swim? Why, boy, I could swim before I was as old as you. When I was fifteen I could swim across the river."

"You could!" and Rod's eyes shone with admiration. "Did you ever swim across the ocean, captain?"

"Not quite, lad. Not quite that far."

"Well, then, I will some day, Captain Josh," Rod cried, as he rose to his feet, and stood erect. "When I'm a man, I'll swim across the ocean and back again before breakfast, see if I don't."

"That'll be quite an undertakin', lad," and the captain's eyes twinkled. "I hope I'll be standin' on the shore when ye git back. I guess ye'll have more cause fer thankfulness then than ye did after eatin' yer dinner to-day. But come," and he rose suddenly to his feet; "I want ye to help me put out my net. Ye must take a nice fresh pickerel home with ye when ye go."

What a wonderful afternoon that was to Rod! Most of the time was spent upon the water, and he received his first real instructions about the handling of the Roaring Bess, the ropes, sail, port and starboard, to say nothing of his lesson in splicing. There was also the swim in the little secluded cove, with the captain as an excellent teacher. Rod little realised that he was being thoroughly sounded as to his qualities and capabilities.

"Ye'll do, lad," was the captain's comment, when at last they came ashore. "Ye're worth botherin' with, I kin see that all right. If ye don't know more'n yer master in a few months, I'll be much surprised. So, there now, take this pickerel to yer grandma, and tell her that ye took it out of the net yerself, and don't ferget to give her my compliments."