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CHAPTER XIV THE CASTAWAY
All of a sudden the girl so wildly cradled amid the breakers, with her wet, white face staring up from the boat’s bottom at the rain-washed, frowning sky, through sheets of spray, clear as rain, that swept over her, was vaguely conscious of some change in the forces that drove and whirled her.

She stopped bailing out the water that threatened to fill the little dory, sat up and peered over the edge of her dripping cradle.

Presence of mind grows like all other virtues. Just behind her head as she lay flat in the boat, stuck in a little wooden pocket of the dory, was what Captain Andy called a bailer-scoop, like a parlor coal-shovel, with no handle to speak of.

Jessica, after she got a grip on herself and did the hardest thing that a girl could do under the circumstances—to lie flat, outwardly calm, and let herself be spun and whirled in the trough of the sea, driven whither the wind chose to carry her—remembered its existence.

Slipping a hand behind her, she drew it out of the “rising” pocket in which it was stuck and began to ladle out the water on either side of her as one might ladle soup.

She soon realized the wisdom of Captain Andy’s advice, for while she lay “flat as a pancake” or a flounder, the buoyant, flat-bottomed dory rode the waves, bow on, side on, stern on, any way on, without capsizing; indeed, the little boat seemed to enjoy the wet dance.

And, now and again, strange as it may seem, the girl felt a queer thrill of enjoyment or excitement shoot through her fear, although she was very much ashamed of the unconscious foolhardiness which had got her into such a plight as this and was at intervals tortured by the thought of how others must be suffering, now, on her account, her fellow-campers on the Sugarloaf, Guardian and Camp Fire Girls.

There was one human companion who seemed to be near her, although long ago the seas had closed over him, just because her girlish imagination saw in him such an heroic figure; that was her great-grandfather.

It was when she thought of him that she felt the thrill of exhilaration; she was having an experience on a small scale of the brine-fighting perils amid which his life, as a sea-captain, had been passed and she grew more and more determined to meet it with a courage worthy of his great-grandchild.

So, when the dory mounted on the back of a white-headed comber and then slid down into a hollow, shipping a small torrent of water over its side, so that she lay in a pool, her short skirt, green, woolen sweater and uncovered hair soaked, she raised herself a little cautiously and bailed “for all she was worth,” knowing that the one imminent danger was that, between the united deluge of rain and wave, the plucky twelve-foot boat might fill and be swamped.

Thus she managed to hold drowning at bay until she became aware of the before-mentioned change in the forces at war with her; for one thing the rain grew lighter; there was a break in the heavy clouds above; the sou’westerly gusts seemed tired of roaring and chopping up the tidal waves; they sank to a lull like a beating of weary wings in the air about her and over the wild bar just ahead of her boat.

And then, all at once, the dory began upon a new figure in its watery dance to the tune of a new, piping whisper in the wind; it stood still, shuddering and rocking, the brave boat, as if afraid to go farther, then it sidled this way and that, waddled like a stranded duck, waltzed with a wave as partner, backed like a perverse donkey, cut about every caper that a rudderless rowboat could devise.

“I do believe the wind is shifting!” Jessica’s heart waltzed with the dory. “It’s changing round to the east—I’m sure of it—if it’s with the tide, instead of against it, I may be swept back up the river again.”

It was a dismaying prospect. Half an hour of such vagrant drifting as she had experienced was enough for a lifetime.

“Or I may—I may be swept ashore somewhere! It is hauling to the east; I’m certain of it!”

She knew something about the four winds and their direction; she had been keeping a scientific record of them for a month, together with the clouds, rain, fog or mist which, day by day, drifted over Camp Morning-Glory, in order to obtain a new honor-bead, a brown honor for “Camp Craft,” to string upon the leather thong about her neck, worn on ceremonial occasions.

If the wind blew from the east it certainly would not hurl her straight on until she struck the wild heart of the breakers on the bar.

What it would do with her she didn’t know. As she felt the dory spun and jostled in every direction, lifted high upon the white shoulder of one wave which crowed as it tossed it to another, she just sat and cowered under the cold lash of the spray, her heart-strings like bowstrings strained almost to snapping, with waiting for watery developments.

“That—that’s what Captain Andy calls the Neck—that sandy point jutting out there! Oh, if the boat would only, once, stop dancing and touch bottom!” she gasped aloud, stretching out her right arm toward that brown Neck of sand as if to encircle it. “Goody! I feel inside o’ me like a flooded attic, with everything, odds an’ ends of furniture, drifting round and bumping together.”

Her teeth clicked upon the gurgle of hysterical laughter—partly a bumped sole—that accompanied his soliloquy.

Another bump! A grounding shock! The dory was rubbing its nose against a long finger of sand slanting out from the Neck.

A receding surf-wave dragged it back. But the girl was on her feet like a wet flash and stumbling forward over the cross-seats. Sobbing, panting, she jumped over the rocking, receding bow right into the heavy, breaker-ridden surf dashing upon the Neck.

It was a bold splash that sent the wheeling sea-gulls circling off, amazed. And it was a bolder wade through the shallow fringes of surf and on, ploughing on, through the wet, oozing sands to gain a foothold upon some firmer sands of the brown Neck.

Once she turned and moaned a temporary farewell to the brave little dory, her watery cradle, that had stood so much. She knew enough about boats to be sure that no craft with a keel could have served her so well.

“Oh! I hate to leave you to be pounded some more,” she gasped aloud, in the wildness surrounding her. “But you—you’ll be picked up later!” addressing the buffeted boat that was now, again, revolving in a maelstrom. “The squall is pretty well over at last; the sun will be coming out in a few minutes.”

There was, indeed, a pale glint all over these drab and lonely sands (she had never been in so lonely a spot before) which seemed to herald such a friendly move on the sun’s part.

The rain had entirely ceased. The wind was piping in an intermittent whistle, shrill, but low, before beginning to blow vigorously from the east.

Between the roar of the surf-waves a silence fell in which she could hear her heart pounding as she dragged herself along in her wet clothing, the water swishing in her canvas shoes which sank deep into the wet sands at every step.

The silence seemed to whisper to her a word: Quicksands. She drew a lost gasp as she remembered how Captain Andy said that a portion of the Neck with its flanking sandspits, as well as parts of the wet beach toward which she was heavily plodding, were, at low water, “studdled” with them—the tide was still far out.

Terrified anew, she put down her hands and crept along, animal-like, on all fours, feeling the sodden sands ahead of her to try to find out whether they were firm or not—the sands that Captain Andy said could “fool one” with their traps.

Now and again they oozed like a wet sponge. With difficulty she dragged her feet out.

Would she ever reach a firm, fairly dry spot, real terra firma?

On, ploughing on, through the wet, oozing sands.

She straightened herself, looking ahead as, silently, she put the weary question to her utterly strange surroundings.

Courage! The beach for which she was heading was now only about thirty yards away, a narrow strip which, instinct told her, was generally bare even at high water. On the land side it sloped abruptly up into a row of sand-hills, the white dunes upon the opposite side of the river from the Sugarloaf Peninsula, which had long been distantly familiar to her eye, the dunes to some far peak of which Kenjo had signaled by means of a lantern and blazing broom.

With the memory of that fire-talk, of the signaled message: “Safe at Camp Morning-Glory,” hope blazed in her as blazed the broom-handle. If she could only reach the Boy Scouts’ Camp somewhere among these dunes, all her troubles would be over.

She felt a momentary qualm of vanity about presenting herself as such a wet and draggled castaway and put up a hand to her loose, streaming hair, to make sure it was still all there.

“Oh, what does it matter if I do look a sight after all I’ve been through; they won’t care!” she told herself impatiently. “Goodness! their camp must be nearer than I thought. What was tha-at? A—shout?”

A shout it might be or a savage roar or the bellow of an animal; it came from some point invisible behind the first line of sand-hills; at first it carried no words with it. Then, as the girl stood quaking, wondering what sort of shore she had been cast on, came a second distant cry freighted with a hoarse challenge.

“Hólà! Hólà!” it said. “Why forre you raise de Cain dere—dig, dig, dig—all time dig?”

“Well! this is the very time to dig—after the rain—if you want to find anything,” returned a second voice, without the same element of guttural wildness in it that characterized the first.

“They’re Boy Scouts, digging for treasure—the treasure that Kenjo was questioning the Kullibígan fortune-telling top about!”

Jessica leaped to the conclusion on the wings of an amazed and sudden peal of laughter that rocked her in her deep and spongy tracks.

“Who ever, ever heard of boys being so foolish?”

But never was folly so welcome! She had been about to drop warily upon all fours again, so as not to throw all her weight at once upon any treacherous patch of sand that she might come to. Now, she tucked her hair behind her ears and ploughed on boldly upright—no more harm could come to her, with those mirthful voices so near.

She wished she could see the vain diggers. She stared hard at the sand-hill from behind whose wind-scarred, rain-gullied rampart resounded their prospecting shouts.

She thought she must be catching the treasure-seeking contagion herself, or else that her drifting trip down-river to the bar had crazed her; she did actually see, under the glint of the lightening sky, a tiny something that flashed like silver in one of the wet, riven grooves of that sand-hill.

“Pshaw! it’s only a piece of glass or a bright shell,” she thought. “But it shines like a welcoming eye.”

She was eager, poor girlish castaway, to get near to anything that looked bright and welcoming amid the wild solitude around her and more eager still to arrive within easy hail of the infatuated diggers hidden from her by the sandy pyramid thatched with long, rain-wet beach-grass, just beginning to turn yellow.

Fixing her eyes upon the gold-green wave of that grass as it bowed to the careering gusts now lightly skipping out of the east, she unthinkingly set her left foot down in a sandy hollow. That left foot reported that the sand there was firm.

But the right had a different story to tell. As she heavily dragged that right foot out of its last footprint in which it had sunk more than ankle-deep, moved it forward in front of the left and let her weight come on it, there was a swishing, sucking, horrible sound in the sands beneath her.

With all her might she tried to pull the right foot out again—and couldn’t.

Neither could she dislodge the left one.

With her very first struggle she sank above her knees in the spongy sands that still hissed as they sucked in water far down beneath the treacherous surface.

“Help! Help! Oh-h, help! I’m—sinking!”

Her cry in its ghastly terror appealed to the sand-hills before her, to everything in heaven and on earth, as it rose shrilly above the roar of the surf on the Neck of the breakers upon the bar.


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