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by Roy P. Churchill

Author of "The Devil Takes Care of His Own," "Inside and Outside," etc.

HE WAS so big and husky that a pea-coat looked like a vest on him. He sat on the afterbitts abreast No. 4 hatch on the cargo ship Alta, his broad shoes resting comfortably on the rail. Presently he came hurriedly into the afterquarters. The Alta, deep laden, had scooped up a sea, and he was dripping wet.

"I was settin' on them stumps there," he explained to grinning shipmates, "with my feet on the fence, and the water come right up and hit me."

There you have Orion Saltsman, a big, good-natured country boy pried loose from his native clods and set down, man size and awkward, in the primer grade of old Mother Sea.

"What're you doing in this outfit, Bud?" said the boatswain's mate, spare and gnarled of form and sharp of voice.

The Alta's crew, all recruits except the skeleton complement of old-timers, had been aboard too short a time for "Hasty" Day to know them by name, but some men take nicknames as a dog does burrs.

"I aim to learn the work," said the farmer boy with friendly respect. "My name's Saltsman."

"Old Salty, eh?" said Hasty. "You're the one that was after me for red and green oil for the running fights?"

"Yes, sir; I aim to do what they tell me always."

"You do?" said the little man, putting that full measure of sarcasm into the tone to which his five red enlistment stripes entitled him. "Two-thirds of you fellows think salt water is something to gargle your throat with. Give your conning tower an overhauling and see if you can find a brain or two. There's no such thing as green and red oil, but if some of these wise birds think they're going to turn this ship into a vaudeville circuit, they'll find themselves studying art after hours. You don't know what that is, either?" asked Day, as the boy stood, his whole attitude one of question. "Well, it's painting the smoke-stack by moonlight."

Hasty Day was a wonder at handling recruits. His words were as sharp as knives, but they pared away only the outer crust and left the heart unhurt. Instinctively Saltsman knew that here was a man who would tell him just what he wanted to know about this new, strange business and with his scathing tongue would put him right when he went wrong.

The Alta was on her maiden voyage with a cargo of barreled oil for an English port. Her skipper, first lieutenant and navigator were merchant seamen serving in the Naval Reserve, and in addition to this deck force she had two ensigns from the Pelham Bay school. Her crew, made up of the different required branches, had been sent aboard her from a training station only three days before she sailed. Most of them were young and enthusiastically eager in their new job, but depressingly green, as far as knowledge of it went.

The first week out, as if to haze the candidates, there swept down across the Grand Banks the best half of a northwest gale, raking the deep laden ship with great green seas that slapped over the battened hatches and whirled and raced up the gangways to plunge in foaming cataracts over the wallowing sides. The Alta groaned and pitched and rolled as if she, too, new to the job, were taking a beginner's lesson.

The crew, having lost interest in the palatable concoctions of Tony Ravellotti, the cook, stood unsteadily on the boatdeck or lay in their bunks near convenient deck buckets. The officers and old-timers stood the watches.

Bob Woten, the chief yeoman, had the wheel, and Hasty Day came up to relieve him.

"Course is three hundred and forty degrees," said Woten, "and the old girl's making a trail like a yeomanette's first shorthand—carrying half a turn left wheel. Guess who I relieved, Hasty? Old Salty, the farm-hand wonder. Had the wheel gripped like the handles of a plow, but hanging on and keeping near enough on the course to get by.

"'Hello, old Salty,' I says to him. 'How's tricks?' He just grins at me and points to the course chalked up there on the weather board.

"'Where you going?' I asks him, but he didn't answer, having other business at the lee rail. Pretty soon he comes staggering back.

"'I've had 'em from green apples, and from too much watermelon, and going in swimming after I et, but this here is kinder different,' he confided to me. 'Does a man ever get over it?'

"'Sure!' I told him. 'All you have to do is to catch a dolphin, get Tony to fry the liver with some onions, and eat that. Then you'll be all set.'

"He thanked me and went after a fishline. Can you beat it?"

"That'll be enough talking, you two," said Ben Hoskins, the watch officer, coming out of the chart-room, where he had been figuring a time-sight.

"I WONDER sometimes," said the captain, joining a discussion at the mess table, "why some of these boys from inland parts of the country quit the job they know and take up the sea." The three days' storm had blown itself out and the recruits had settled back into a more normal routine.

"I can tell you why one of them came, sir," said Bert Hardin, looking solemnly across the table at Matthew Cates, the other Pelham Bay ensign. "His name is Orion and, being named for a star, he wants to study navigation."

"He'd better begin lower down than the stars," said the captain.

"He is," said Clinton Nacke, the first lieutenant. "The bunch is breaking him in on swab combs and writing letters to be left in mail buoys, and have had him up at night holding a fight at the gangway to see if he could catch a flying fish, with the ship already in forty north and getting in a higher latitude every watch. They've tried every stunt on him that any of the gang knows, and so far he hasn't failed to fall for a one of them. I expect to find him on the masthead any time keeping a lookout for sea-serpents."

So active were his shipmates in Saltsman's education that there came a time when they had to let up on him, not because he had ceased to take their pranks with patient fortitude, but because they had tried out all they knew on him and could think of few new ones.

"Old Salty's getting wised up," confided Bob Woten. "He only grinned when somebody tried to send him to the pay derk for the key to the keelson. I'd already sent him after it once, and that was enough."

Hasty Day found Saltsman leading the deck force in the amount of work done in scraping decks, washing paint-work or polishing brass. He did it all thoroughly. In his speech he mixed the idioms of land and sea to the constant merriment of his shipmates.

The new Bowditch which he pored over in his spare time became thumb-marked and torn with much handling, and the two ensigns found him often, in their watch below, at the door of their rooms with questions.

"Now this declination," he would ask; "I don't rightly understand how the old sun plows as crooked a furrow as the book appears to make it. And what's these little crowfeet here on the chart?"

In England he bought a second-hand sextant and learned painfully to take observations and read the vernier, and to keep his thick, sweaty fingers off the already stained arc.

THE Alta discharged her cargo of oil and took on general merchandise between decks and enough manganese ore in her lower holds for ballast. The raw cold of the North Atlantic was trying on the recruits. Before leaving the last English port a good many of them had severe colds. The hospital apprentice reported on the third day that he had put two men in their bunks.

"It might develop into influenza," said the captain. "Watch them closely."

The next day the number of sick was increased to nine—all afflicted with high temperature, aching joints and all the symptoms of the epidemic.

"It's the flu all right, sir," the hospital apprentice told the captain. "I'd like to have a nurse, somebody to help me take care of them."

"Take who you want," the captain ordered. "Keep them isolated in one compartment. Keep the place scrubbed and clean."

The hospital apprentice asked for a volunteer at the mess table that evening.

"I'll have to have a little sleep," he said. "I want somebody to go on at night and relieve me. All you have to do is to give the medicine and keep the worst ones covered up and in their bunks."

The men looked at one another without answering. There had been stories of ships found drifting helplessly with all the crew sick or dead. The disease was known to be extremely contagious, and no one was anxious to expose himself. There had come to them letters from their shipmates in receiving stations, telling of the awful toll of sudden death.

"All right," said the hospital apprentice. "I'll just pick put one of you and have the captain issue an order."

"I didn't come here to wait on the sick," grumbled one of the men.

"You just take my job and let me do it then," said Hasty Day, turning on the speaker with withering scorn. "All some of you fellows know about the sea is sightseeing and drawing your pay."

"Do you reckon I could do it?" asked Saltsman meekly from the end of the table.

"Sure, let old Salty do it," came a chorus. "He's germ-proof. If they got on him they'd laugh themselves to death."

"You're it, then, big fellow," said Hasty Day, "if you mean it. But if you want to back out, I'll give one of these would-be comedians a chance. Most of them never got by that place in their lives where they first learned to let old George do the mean jobs."

"I'd try it," said Saltsman. "Neighbors had to wait on the sick a little back home. It'd give me more time for my figgering, too, maybe."

"Unanimously elected," said Hasty Day, glaring about him.

And so it was decided.

In the days that followed, the volunteer nurse had small chance to look into his navigation books. His patients demanded all of his strength and every moment of his time. Patiently he soothed their fever with icy wet cloths, washed their faces and brought them food and drink. In between times, often to the accompaniment of groans and the labored breathing and muttering of men half delirious, he scrubbed and cleaned continuously.

He and the hospital apprentice relieved each other in turns of eight hours each, night and day, while the crew stood aloof, shunning with awe the affected compartment. More men caught the epidemic, until fifteen were down, and one night, while Saltsman watched, a man died, despite the stimulating hypodermic which the hospital apprentice had taught him to use.

The crew grew panicky, fear ridden, suspicious of every cough and sneeze, and went hurriedly away when Saltsman or the hospital apprentice appeared.

Saltsman grew pale and hollow-eyed, but kept cheerful with strength which seemed endless. Hasty Day, one of the few who refused to be in any way affected, asked him about a relief.

"I guess I'd better keep on," said Saltsman. "These others ain't had no fair chance to learn, and there might be some, like little Bobbie White, that I could keep from going even if I did fail with him."

"Seems as if you'd be afraid of getting it yourself, sticking so long," said Hasty.

"I never had nothing in my life," said the other solemnly.

"All right, old Salty, go right to it," said the boatswain's mate. "You and 'Pills' are doing fine, but there's no need to row a good boat on the rocks, either."

Gradually the epidemic began to release its grip on the ship. Those who were seriously ill passed the crisis, and the lighter cases became convalescent. As if its presence aboard had innoculated the rest of the crew with an antitoxin, no more cases appeared.

With his charges giving less trouble, Saltsman took up his navigation again. He had an old pilot chart of the North Atlantic and put down each day with a pencil a ringed dot to mark the position he found. The chart was worn and showed many erasures, and Saltsman's marks, where he had laboriously sought to make his own calculations come somewhere near the correct noon positions, bore a striking resemblance to the irregular outline of a range of mountains. Still he was making progress, and his faithfulness with the sick made the officers more lenient toward his many questions.

THE Alta, bound for the Gulf ports, came to the straits' between Florida and the Bahama Islands. At dusk one night she passed Jupiter light. Saltsman had the chart spread out on an empty bunk and crouched beside it on his knees. A penciled cross marked the position of the ship, while he measured from the margin the distance off shore. So engrossed was he that Ben Hoskins, the watch officer, had to call twice, rather loudly, before Saltsman got up and came to the door of the compartment, his stub of a pencil still clutched in his fingers.

"Give me a shot of something for my head, will you?" demanded the officer. "Make it pretty strong, too."

"Yes sir," said Saltsman and unlocked the little woven-wire clothes locker that he and the hospital apprentice had taken for a medicine chest.

"Has the doctor given you anything yet?" asked Saltsman.

"No! What's that got to do with it? Shake a leg and let's have something. I'm on watch."

The navigator was cross and irritable. He was unused to sickness of any kind. His temples throbbed, and a burning cord seemed to draw at the back of his head. He felt feverish, and his throat was parched and dry. Saltsman rolled out from a bottle labeled "aspirin," a couple of white pellets and drew off a glass of water.

"This here's for the headache, sir," he said. "Let 'em go down whole. It generally takes two doses if the headache's bad. I'll bring the other up to the bridge when it's time for it."

The officer swallowed the medicine, and Saltsman watched him walk rather unsteadily to the boat-deck ladder and climb up.

"He acts like he's got it, too," he said to himself and started back to the chart room, pausing to close the medicine chest. "By golly," he said as he eyed the row of bottles, "doc always gives salts, too, and I forgot it."

Pouring out a liberal dose into the glass Hoskins had used, he dissolved it in water heated over a little alcohol lamp. Then, making a round of the patients and seeing them all quiet, he followed the officer to the bridge.

The night was dark and heavily overcast. The wind which had been blowing from almost dead ahead, was now abeam. Coming from the lighted compartment to the darkened bridge, Saltsman could not see very well at first. Only the quartermaster at the wheel and the dark blur of a bundled up signal-boy pacing back and forth were in sight.

"Where's Mr. Hoskins?" asked Saltsman in low tones, going over and looking into the binnacle past the helmsman's shoulder.

"Back to the chart-room, I guess. What're you doing, Salty? Helping him navigate?"

Saltsman grinned. Being kidded about studying navigation had never worried him.

"I brought him some medicine," he said.

"Well, you'd better give it to him," said the other. "He's peevish enough to heave you over the side if he catches you chewing the fat with the man at the wheel. Beat it now, before you're caught."

Saltsman could not resist another look at the compass, despite the other's warning.

Saltsman noted that the course was two hundred and seventy degrees. He repeated the figures over to himself to keep from forgetting them as he went toward the chart-room.

The side door was open, and at its entrance he called softly. Getting no answer, he went on in. At once he caught the sound of heavy, labored breathing, and in a moment he was kneeling over the officer's body lying full length on the deck. Saltsman took hold of his shoulder and shook him. Hoskins groaned, threshed up with his arms and sent the glass which Saltsman held spinning across the deck.

The motion was one of delirium and from his nursing the sailor recognized it, even in the dark. He put his hand on the officer's forehead and then down inside his shirt. The man seemed afire with the fever that racked him. Saltsman wondered what to do next. In the back of his consciousness he was still repeating the course he had read from the compass, and Suddenly he realized it was wrong. He had just left half an horn's painful study of his chart and remembered that the true course was almost south.

"Two hundred and seventy degrees," he said. "Ought to be one hundred and seventy, or near-abouts."

He shook Hoskins again and tried to rouse him. Then he thought of the night order book, the purpose of which he had tried so faithfully to memorize. Leaving Hoskins, he switched on the light over the broad desk where the charts were spread and found the course written in ink as plainly as could be—signed with the captain's initials—"One hundred and seventy degrees." The chart was there also, to show plainly that the course should be almost due south instead of west.

By the light Saltsman saw, too, that Hoskins' face was flushed, his mouth open, and his hands gripping convulsively. His unseeing eyes stared straight up at the deck overhead.

"Bad off," said Saltsman. "Must've fell in a faint, like Tilman did. I'd better call doc."

Shoving aside the chart and navigation books, he lifted the heavy man to the desk and put an oilskin coat under his head. Then he ran out on the bridge again to see if by any chance he had been mistaken in the reading of the compass.

"What's all the excitement?" asked the quartermaster, who had heard the breaking glass. "Did he throw the stuff at you?"

"Mr. Hoskins is bad sick. I'm going after doc. But you're steering the wrong course. It ought to be one hundred and seventy, not two hundred and seventy."

"Must've had a shot too many of your own dope," said the quartermaster calmly. "Fooling with the wild ones in the sick bay must be catching. Go see about Mr. Hoskins and turn off that fight you left burning in the chart-room."

"The course is wrong, I tell you," insisted Saltsman, "and it's narrow along here. Change it right away before I go."

"Change nothing, you big boob! What do you think I am, taking orders from a baby whale? Changing the course without proper orders is apt to put a man in jail for the rest of his fife, if he's unlucky enough to still have it when the ship hits the beach."

"But it's there in the book," said Saltsman, growing more excited all the time. "I saw it. Hurry, so I can go on and do something for Mr. Hoskins!"

"I go by my orders, bo," said the other firmly. "Brush on by, now. If you're so sure of yourself, wake up the old man and tell him your troubles, but don't tell 'em to me."

"Get away from there," said the big sailor with sudden determination. "You're heading wrong, certain and sure."

He took hold of the wheel, struggling for its possession.

Micky Morton, the quartermaster, was one of the old-timers, squarely built and stocky. He tried to hold the wheel and, with elbows and back, to shake Saltsman off, but, despite all he could do, it went over, spoke by spoke, and very slowly the big ship began to swing around.

"Let go!" said Micky wrathfully and stepped back, swinging a straight blow for Saltsman's face.

The quartermaster's aim was good and there was no attempt to parry. It would have been a knockout for most any one else, but Saltsman only grunted, shook his head, and swept back with one of his big hands, holding the wheel over with the other. The move was unexpected, as the quartermaster had good reason to believe that his blow would put the man out, and in the dark he did not see it coming. He was sent spinning across the bridge.

"You leave me be," said Saltsman without anger. "I know what I'm about."

"Same as all the other nuts from the nut farms," retorted the quartermaster, his head ringing with the mighty cuff.

He collided with the nest of speaking-tubes that went below, and jerked out one of the plugs to whistle for the captain.

"I'll have the Old Man up. Come on over here, Bert," he called to the signal-boy. "Gimme me a hand with this loco hay pitcher. Can't wait for an answer, but the whistle will bring him."

Bert was reluctant.

"Maybe Mr. Hoskins did say one hundred and seventy and not two hundred and seventy," he temporized. "Let's wait for the skipper."

"Wait nothing! This bird's gone wild. He'll pile us up on the beach while the Old Man is getting his boots on. Grab him around the legs while I sink another hot one in his jaw."

"You two let me alone," begged Saltsman. "I don't want to hurt neither one of you, but I'm a-going to hold this here wheel till she reads a hundred and seventy."

The two men advanced, using considerable caution. The Alta was swinging sluggishly with left wheel.

"LIGHT HO!" exclaimed the signalman suddenly.

"Where away?" answered the quartermaster mechanically, wondering what other complication was developing to confuse a situation still far from solution.

"Red light half a point on the starboard bow!" cried the signalman, pointing.

"Schooner or something," said the quartermaster. "No masthead light. We're right on top of her, and she's got all the right of way there ever was! Suffering Pete, what a smash-up! Pull that whistle cord, Bert! Three blasts!"

The quartermaster jumped for the engine-room telegraph, intending to back the engines.

Saltsman was the quicker. He had seen the light, too, and, picking up the grating which smaller helmsmen used to stand on, he jammed it under the wheel to hold it where he wanted, and ran to the telegraph. Micky felt himself picked up bodily, his hand torn from the lever. As he was thrown down the deck, he heard Saltsman's grunt of effort. The pointer still stood at full speed ahead.

Bert, the signal-boy, had reached the wheel, pulled out the grating, and started to revolve the spokes to stop the Alta's turn.

"Keep away, buddie," warned Saltsman. "I'm going to do the steering till the captain gets here."

At his command the signal-boy let go promptly. Even with the quartermaster's help he was doubtful of success in subduing the big sailor.

Saltsman took the wheel. The red light was now broad on the starboard bow.

"That'll clear now," he muttered and spun the wheel over, reversed the helm, and began to steady the big ship.

"Green to green and red to red," he muttered to himself, "keep your course and go ahead."

The quartermaster, scrambling back from the wing of the bridge where Saltsman's heave, and a roll of the ship at the same time, had thrown him, came up behind again.

"Don't you know anything, you big farmer?" he shouted. "You've got your green light to the other fellow's red one. Put her over right wheel, quick, before we cut her in two!"

Again he attempted to reach the spokes, but as before Saltsman shook him off. Micky Morton's morale was still good, but the feel of the big sailor's enormous strength had made him wary.

"You're trying to fool me," said Saltsman. "I don't trust you. Red to red the book says, and I learnt it by heart. She's passing, anyhow, whatever it is."

"Yes, I see," said the quartermaster scornfully. "All the real sailors are not dead yet. The skipper of the other craft must have put her about, seeing that whoever was at the wheel here meant to run him down, rules or no rules. Give me that wheel now, you bone-headed pumpkin peeler, and quit this monkey business. Come on, Bert. We've got to manhandle this guy."

The two made another determined but unsuccessful attempt to wrest the wheel from Saltsman. The fight was interrupted in its first stages by the voice of the captain, coming up from below, seeing first the light on the bow, and then the struggling men at the wheel.

"What's going on here? Where is the officer of the watch? What's that light on the bow?"

Quickly he swung his night glasses into position and gave a sharp, quick order—

"Left wheel!"

Micky and Bert fell back at once, and Saltsman obeyed the order promptly. The red light came on the beam, on the quarter, and then showed up astern.

"Ease your helm," ordered the captain. "Steady at eighty for the present. Now tell me what happened."

"Things were all right, sir," answered the quartermaster, "running along as smooth as could be until this fellow came running up here saying we were off the course, and taking the wheel away from me. He said Mr. Hoskins was sick in the chart-room and we ought to be steering one hundred and seventy instead of two hundred and seventy."

"The course is one hundred and seventy," the captain broke in sharply. "It's in the night order book. That red fight is on a gas buoy at the end of Barrier Shoals. It's a good thing somebody changed the course. What's the reason I wasn't called sooner?"

"I did call you, sir, as soon as I could get to the tube, but Mr. Hoskins told me plainly that it was two hundred and seventy. Then he went to the chart-room and didn't come back."

"Never mind about that. It's easy to confuse one and two with no one here to check up. Get aft on the run and take a sounding. And you, signal-boy, jump below and break out the doctor. Where is Mr. Hoskins?"

"He's in the chart-room, sir," said Saltsman, "lying on the table."

Then, still holding the wheel, Saltsman told his part of the story in halting, embarrassed sentences.

"You thought the red light was a ship, did you?"

"Yes sir," said Saltsman. "The quartermaster said it was a sailing vessel of some kind because she didn't carry a masthead fight. And I made a big mistake, sir, being worried and upset with so many things on my mind. I was thinking our red fight was next to that red fight, and kept her going straight. If it had been a ship we would have run together. But captain, the boys was pestering me a lot, and pulling at me. I just naturally forgot."

"It's a blessing you did," said the skipper, "and I hardly believe you will ever forget that little point again. This time, if you had read die fights correctly, we should have run straight in across Barrier Shoals instead of outside in deep water. Taking charge as you did saved the ship. I'm going to see that you get a better chance to study navigation. You've got the makings of a real sailorman in you."

This from the captain meant a great deal, and Saltsman knew it. He had been anxious about the outcome of what he had done, and here was praise heaped upon him. He stood seeking words to express his gratitude, but before he could speak the captain went on:

"Here come the others," he said. "Get on below now and see if you can help with Mr. Hoskins."

Ben Hoskins was revived with a whiff of ammonia and carried to his room. The moderate dose of aspirin, given for the headache, had been sufficient to slow up his heart and make him faint, but left no bad after effects. With the usual few days of fever, he began to get well. During his convalescence he laid out a course of study for Saltsman which had the captain's approval. He was quite as grateful as the captain for what the boy had done, for had the Alta gone on the reef, he would have been responsible, as it was his watch.

"I'll have you ready to take out a license as soon as you get your discharge," he promised Saltsman and kept his word.