The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic
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“Yes, but to watch those poor fellows – it’s – it’s awful!”
Jack put his hands over his eyes to shut out, for an instant, the frantically waving arms of the men on the wreck. They were making desperate appeals. Plainly they could not understand why the liner kept circling them.
“Brace up, youngster,” said Raynor kindly. “I guess the skipper feels as bad about it as you do, but he won’t act till he can do so safely.”
The afternoon began to close in. The stormy twilight deepened into dusk and found the nerve-wracking waiting still going on. On the great gray seas the black steamer, with a wind-blown plume of smoke pouring from her salt-encrusted funnel, still solemnly circled the foundering hulk, while the storm clouds raced past overheard.
But the wind had dropped slightly and the coat of oil that now covered the waves prevented their breaking. The Ajax, already crawling up on the weather side of the wreck, appeared to reduce speed.
“There’s going to be something doing now,” prophesied Raynor.
On the bridge the captain had summoned Mr. Brown, the third officer.
“Brown,” he said, “I’m going to make a try to get those fellows off. That craft won’t last till daylight and we could never tackle the job in the dark.”
“Just what I think, sir,” rejoined the third mate.
“Very well; take one of the stern boats. Be very careful. If you hit the side, she’ll smash like an egg-shell and we could never pick you up in this. I’ll come in as close as I dare, to give you the lee water. Now be off with you and – good-luck.”
Mr. Brown hurried aft. He collected his boat crew as he went. The boat he selected was the one hung on patent davits above the wireless room. Young Raynor had been summoned to the engine-room and Jack stood there alone watching the preparations. The blood of his seafaring ancestors stirred in his veins. Mustering his courage he stepped forward.
“Mr. Brown, can I go, sir? I can row. Let me go, won’t you?”
The mate, angry at being disturbed, spun on his heel and glowered at the young wireless boy.
“What do you know about a boat?” he demanded. “You’re only a sea-going telegraph operator – ”
At that instant the doughty little mate’s eye fell on a hulking big seaman who was hanging back. Plainly enough the man was afraid. He was muttering to himself as if he did not like the prospect of breasting those giant seas in the small boat.
The man was a Norwegian seaman, and Mr. Brown, who was an American, made a quick, angry spring for him as if to grip him bodily and compel him to go. Then he suddenly recollected Jack.
“Well, lad, since that hulking coward is afraid, I’ll give you a chance. Get in and look slippy. We’ve no time to lose.”
Jack shoved the big sailor aside while the fellow scowled and swore.
“Get forward, you!” roared little Mr. Brown. “I’ll attend to you when we get back. Now, youngster.”
But Jack was already in the boat.There was a shouted order and the falls began to creak in the quadrant davits. For an instant they hung between wind and water. Mr. Brown watched with the eye of a cat the proper moment to let go.
Suddenly the Ajax gave a roll far out to leeward. The boat dropped like a stone. The patent tackle set her free.
“Give way, men!” shouted the officer; and in the nick of time to avoid being shattered against the steel side of the tank by a big sea, the boat put forth on its errand of mercy.
TO THE RESCUE
Had the seas been breaking, the boat could not have lived a minute. The moment that she struck the water would have been her last.
But, thanks to Captain Braceworth’s up-to-date seamanship, the oil-skimmed swells, although high, were smooth, without dangerous spray and breakers.
The five seamen and the young wireless man who had volunteered at the last instant, tugged frantically at the big sweeps. Jack had been guilty of no exaggeration when he had said he could row. It had been his favorite amusement about the bay, and he was as strong as a young colt, anyhow.
In the stern at the steering oar stood Mr. Brown. His eyes were riveted on the wreck ahead.
As a monstrous green swell rushed under the boat he gave a shout:
“Lay into it, bullies! Pull for the girls, boys! That’s the stuff! Break your backs! All together now! We’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!”
Mr. Brown, in his youth, had been before the mast on a whaler, and in moments of excitement he went back to the language of whalemen when out in the boats.
“H-e-a-v-e a-l-l!” he bellowed, with a strength of lung that appeared wonderful in such a diminutive man.
As the tanker’s boat was pulled by its stalwarts across the heaving seas, the men at the oars, by turning their heads, could see in what desperate straits were the handful of survivors.
“There’s a woman on board!” yelled Mr. Brown suddenly. “Pull for all you’re worth, my lads! It’s a little girl, by the Polar Star!”
As if this information had given them new strength, the men gave way with renewed energy. Jack, by twisting his head, could see, as the boat topped a wave, the sight that had excited Mr. Brown. Astern, lashed to the stump of the mizzen-mast, was the figure of a tall, spare, gray-haired man. His arms were clasped tightly around a young girl, whose hair was whipped out wildly by the wind.
Near by, another form was lashed to the wheel, while forward were two figures, apparently those of sailors. They also were tied, in this case to the windlass. This fact alone betrayed the desperate conditions through which the unfortunate craft had fought her way.
“She’s a down-easter, from Nova Scotia or Maine. Lumber, I guess,” opined Mr. Brown. “Good thing for them they had a lumber cargo, or she’d have been keeping company with Davy Jones by this time. Give way, men!”
But all Mr. Brown’s urgings to “hit it up” were unneeded. The crew of the boat were all Americans, and anyone who knows the merchant navy of to-day, knows that it is by a rare chance that such a thing happens. American ships are largely manned by foreigners; but aboard the Ajax, – Captain Braceworth was particular in this respect, – the majority of the crew were American. Consequently, they needed no driving to do their duty when lives were at stake.
Jack, tugging at his oar, felt the strength of ten men. His whole being thrilled to the glory of the adventure. This was real seaman’s work. This was no job for a monkey-wrench sailor, but a man’s task, requiring strength, grit and nerve.
But as they drew alongside the wreck, it was apparent that any attempt to get close enough to take off the crew must infallibly end in disaster.
Mr. Brown turned to his crew.
“Men, which of you can swim? I’m like a lame duck in the water or I’d do it myself.” (And nobody doubted that he would.) “We’ve got to get a line to that craft.”
Jack’s face flushed with excitement. He would prove worthy of his line of sea-going forbears.
“I can swim like a fish, sir! Let me try it!”
At the same time that he spoke, four other voices expressed their willingness to try. Mr. Brown looked at Jack.
“This is no job for a wireless kid to tackle,” he said grimly. “Dobson, you spoke next. I’ll send you. Get ready and make fast a line around your waist.”
But Dobson was already knotting a line about his middle. He stripped to his underwear, and, while Jack looked on with bitter disappointment in his face, the man tossed one end of the line to Mr. Brown and then, without a word, plunged overboard.
Jack watched him with a thrill of admiration, as with strong, confident strokes he cleft the sea. Then he looked in another direction. Off to the leeward was the Ajax, tossing on the seas for an instant and then vanishing till only the tops of her masts and a smudge of smoke were visible.
It was growing dusk. A wan, gray light filled the air. The next time the steamer rose on a swell, Jack saw that at her mast-head the riding lights had been switched on. They glowed like jewels in the monotonous sea-scape of lead and dull green.
Dobson reached the wreck. With clever generalship he had waited for a big sea, and then, as it rose high, he had ridden on it straight for the vessel. When the sea swept by, they saw him clinging to the main chains and after an instant begin clambering on board with the line trailing from his waist.
Those in the boat broke into a wild cheer. Jack’s voice rang out above the rest.
“There’s a real seaman,” he thought; “one of the kind my father and Uncle Toby were.”
As the hoarse shouts of the men in the boat rang over the waters, they saw the form of Dobson creeping aft along the wreckage. They watched through the thickening light as the shadowy figure toiled along. He gained the side of the old man and the little girl.
Taking the line from his waist, he made it fast to the latter’s body.
“Give way, men,” ordered Mr. Brown, and the boat was warily maneuvered under the stern of the wreck. It was dangerous, risky work, but while the small craft tossed almost under the derelict’s counter, the forms of the old man and the child were lowered into her. Although both were badly exhausted, there were stimulants in the boat, and Mr. Brown pronounced both to be safe and sound and not in any danger.
But the seaman who had made the rescues was, himself, in no condition after his long, hard swim to do any more. When the girl and the old man were safe in the boat, he, too, made a wild leap and boarded it. Immediately it was sheered off.
Jack’s heart gave a wild leap. There were still two men in the bow. What about them?
There was a second line in the boat and the young wireless man had already made it fast around his middle.
“It’s my turn now, Mr. Brown,” he urged. “Let me go now, won’t you, and get those two poor fellows in the bow?”
“Shut your mouth and sit still,” came hotly from Mr. Brown; and then a sudden exclamation, “Great guns! He’s as brave a young idiot as I ever saw!”
For Jack had taken the law into his own hands, leaped overboard into the boiling sea and was now swimming with bold, confident strokes toward the dim outlines of the derelict’s bow.
JACK DISOBEYS ORDERS
Outlined dimly in the distant gloom was the hulk of the steamer. Her whistle was shrieking hoarsely, now sounding, as the mate guessed, a recall to the rescue boat before darkness closed in.
Jack was a strong, able swimmer, but never had he received such a breath-taking buffeting as fell to his lot in that wild commotion of waters. But with grim determination he fought his way to the ship’s side. Those in the boat saw him gain a foothold on the anchor chains and scramble upward; but they could not guess what a supreme effort of nerve and muscle those last few moments cost him.
As he gained the deck he was compelled, perforce, to cast himself gasping on his face, and so he lay for a space. Then, from the gloom, came a feeble call for help. It nerved him with fresh vim. Among the tangled wreckage he scrambled till he reached the place where the two men were lashed to the bitts.
Thanks to the oil-spread waters, the seas were no longer breaking over the wreck, but the two men who had lashed themselves there to avoid being swept over the side, were too feeble to sever their ties. Jack cut them loose and signaled to the boat. It was brought as close alongside as Mr. Brown dared, and one after the other the two seamen were hauled on board. Last of all came Jack. He secured the rope to his waist as it came snaking toward him from the boat like a lasso, and then jumped outward. As he sprang, he felt the hulk drop from under his feet in a wild yaw.
At the same instant the boy felt himself being drawn under water as if in the grasp of a giant hand that he was powerless to resist. Then his senses left him in a rocketing blaze of light and a roar like that of a hundred water-falls.
When he came to, he was lying on the bottom boards of the boat. From a bottle some stimulant was being administered to him. He sat up and stared about him wildly for a moment, and then saw that they were almost alongside the heaving hull of the tanker.
But of the wreck there was no sign.
“Went to Davy Jones like a plummet,” said Mr. Brown cheerfully, “and almost took you along with her, my lad. We had a fine job hauling you aboard, I can tell you.”
Now came the dangerous task of hauling up the boat of rescuers and survivors. But it was accomplished at last by dint of cool-headed work and seamanship. The two sailors were sent forward to get dry clothing and hot coffee, while the elderly man, who was Captain Ralph Dennis of the wrecked vessel, and his daughter Helen, were cared for in the officers’ quarters aft.
Feeling rather shaky and dripping like a water-rat, Jack hastened to make a change of clothing. By the time this was accomplished, the Ajax was once more on her course. Hardly had he drawn on dry socks before the old bos’n was at the door.
“The skipper wants to see you forward. I rather suspect there’s a storm brewing for you, younker,” was his greeting.
“I’ll be there right away,” said Jack, and having pulled on his boots, he hastened forward. As he went, his heart beat a little faster than usual. What fault had he committed now, he wondered. Jack was a modest youth, but he had suspected praise rather than censure for the part he had taken in the rescue.
The skipper was in the chart-house giving a few directions before he turned in, after an almost continuous twenty-four hours of duty.
He greeted Jack with a frown.
“Ready, who gave you orders to go away in that boat?” he demanded sternly.
“No one, sir, but I thought – ”
“You had no business to think. This is not a man-of-war or a passenger boat, but if everyone on board did as they thought best, where would discipline be?”
Jack stood dumbly miserable. He had performed what he thought a meritorious act and this was his reward!
“I did the best I could to help when one of the men hung back, sir,” he said.
The captain’s face softened a bit, but his voice was still stern as he said:
“Mr. Brown was in charge of the boat. He should not have let you go. I blame him more than you. But remember another time that you must do nothing without orders so long as you sail under me. That is all, – and Ready.”
“I understand you conducted yourself according to the best traditions of American seamanship. I was glad to hear that. Now get along with you and try to relay a message to our owners, telling them of the rescue. If there is another vessel within our range, inform me, as I wish to transfer the shipwrecked men if possible. The craft was bound from Portland, Maine, to the West Indies with lumber, and there is no sense in taking the rescued company all the way across the Atlantic.”
Jack saluted and hastened off on his task. He felt considerably lighter of heart when he left the chart-room than when he had entered it. There had been a gleam of real human sympathy in the captain’s eye. That man of iron actually had a heart after all, and Jack had read, under his gruff manner, a kindly interest in his welfare and esteem for his act in saving the two seamen.
“I’m glad I did disobey orders, anyway,” he said to himself; “if it did nothing else, it has shown the skipper to me in another light than that of a cruel task-master and slave-driver.”
That night Jack succeeded in relaying, through the Arizonian, of the Red B Line, a message to the ship’s owners, telling of what had been done. He also discovered that by noon of the next day they would pass on the Atlantic track, – which is as definitely marked as a well-beaten road, – the Trojan, of the Atlas Line of freighters. He made arrangements with the captain of that craft to transfer the castaways of the Ajax. This done, he informed the second officer, for the tired captain was taking a well-deserved rest, and then turned in himself.
Next morning the gale had blown itself out and the Ajax was pushing ahead at top speed to make up for lost time. Black smoke crowding out of her funnel showed that coal was not being spared in the furnace room. Everyone appeared to be in good spirits, and the late autumn sun shone down on a sparkling, dancing sea. It seemed impossible to believe that only twelve hours before that same ocean had claimed its toll of human lives and property.
Not long before eight bells, the look-out forward reported smoke on the horizon. Jack, who had been in communication with the craft all the morning, knew that the vapor must herald the approach of the Trojan. He sent word forward to the captain by a passing steward, and the castaways were told to prepare for a transfer to the other ship. Before the two crafts came alongside, Captain Dennis had made his way to Jack’s wireless room.
He looked forlorn and miserable, as well he might, for he had lost a fine ship in which he owned an interest.
“How is your daughter coming along?” asked Jack, deeming it best not to dwell on the stricken mariner’s misfortunes.
“Fairly well. We were two days in that gale. It’s a wonder any of us lived. But I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart. That was a fine bit of work, and I can’t begin to express my gratitude.”
“We were glad to have happened along in time,” said Jack; but at this moment the conversation was interrupted by the appearance of the captain’s daughter. Jack saw with surprise that the bedraggled, white-faced maiden of the day before had, by some magic peculiar to womankind, transformed herself into a remarkably pretty girl of about his own age. She thanked him in a gentle way for his part in the work of rescue, and Jack found himself stammering and blushing like a school-boy.
“The Trojan is almost up to us now,” he said, “and it will be time for us to say good-bye. But I – I wish I could hear some time how you get along after you get ashore.”
“We live in New York,” said the captain, coming out of a sad reverie, “or we did. We’ll have to find new quarters now. But this address will always find me.”
“And here is mine,” said Jack, writing hastily on a bit of message paper. The captain glanced at it and then started.
“Are you any relative of Captain Amos Ready?” he demanded eagerly.
“I’m his son,” said Jack. “I live with my Uncle Toby and – ”
But Captain Dennis was wringing his hand as if he would shake it off.
“This is a great day for me, boy, even if my poor old ship does lie at the bottom of the Atlantic and Helen and I will have to start life all over again. Why, Captain Ready and I sailed together many a year, but I lost track of him and he of me. Where is he now?”
Jack sadly told him of his father’s death. Then there was only time for quick farewells and hand-shakings, for an officer came hurrying up to say that the boat was ready to transport the castaways to the Trojan. The two big freighters lay idly on the ocean, bowing and nodding at each other, while the transfer was made. Then the boat returned and was hauled up and the vessels began to move off in opposite directions.
Jack stood at the rail gazing after the Trojan. He waved frantically as the freighter got under way, and thought he caught a glimpse of a white handkerchief being wafted in return. He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Raynor. There was an amused smile on the young engineer’s face.
“Pretty girl that, eh, Ready? Pity she couldn’t have made the trip with us.”
“Oh, you shut up!” exclaimed Jack, crimsoning and aiming a blow at his friend’s head.
Through varying winds and seas, the Ajax plowed steadily on her way, and in due course arrived at Antwerp and discharged her cargo. Of course, while in port, Jack was at liberty, and he spent his time roaming about the quaint old harbor and city.
Raynor joined him sometimes on these expeditions, but the young engineer was kept busy making minor repairs on the engines and directing the machinists. Since he was the junior member of the engine-room crew, this work fell to his lot.
On the voyage across, and in port, too, whenever it was possible, he had been steadily perfecting himself in the wireless craft till he was quite proficient at it for a beginner. Jack proved an apt teacher and the young engineer, himself unusually quick and intelligent, was a willing scholar.
So the days passed pleasantly among the foreign scenes of the town and harbor. All this time Jack had been noticing surprising vigilance concerning the firemen and the crew of the big tanker.
One evening while they were roaming about the town, making purchases of post-cards and other small articles, Jack asked Raynor about this.
“They’re on the look-out for the tobacco smuggling gang,” explained his friend.
“The tobacco smuggling gang? What is that?” asked Jack.
“Do you mean to say that you have never heard of them or of their activities?” asked Raynor.
Jack shook his head.
“Not till this minute, anyway,” he said.
“Well, then, you must know that most of the Sumatra tobacco used for cigars and so on comes to this port, and it can be bought here very cheaply. In New York there is a well-organized gang, as is known to every seaman, that makes a practice of buying all that can be smuggled into the country by the crews and firemen of ships trading out of this port. Their activities have been reported in the papers many times, and all sorts of means have been employed to check them, but somehow the trade still seems to go on. So now you know why we keep such a careful look-out while in this port.”
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