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CHAPTER XV IN THE QUICKSANDS’ GRIP
“That was a girl’s cry, Stack!” Kenjo Red—Kenjo the youthful signal-man of the blazing broom performance—lifted his red head that flamed like a beacon amid the wet drabness of the dunes and stopped digging with a small shovel in the side of a sand-mound. “A—a girl’s cry!” he repeated, startled.

“By George! it was. Somewhere the lace is screaming for help! A woman—or a girl—must be drowning or sinking—somewhere!” Miles Stackpole jumped to his feet as he spoke, a ludicrously sanded figure; he had almost tunneled right through one sand-hill in a fevered search for the buried treasure which, according to local tradition, had been hidden by some hardy pirate of old among these wild sand-dunes.

The mumbled tale of the aged hunter after one-legged hen-clams to the effect that, about a quarter of a century prior to this squally day, certain gold and silver coins, a handful of them, stamped like no coinage ever current in the United States, had been picked up on, or near, this very spot, had infected Stack with the gold-fever, with a get-rich-quick delirium that showed in his strained eyes as he held his breath for a moment, trying to decide from what quarter came that feminine cry.

Farther off a third figure stood at attention, too, listening with deep snorts, gulping breaths, like those of a woodland moose whose long ear is trained to catch a faint sound on the wind.

A strange, lithe figure this third in a rough blue shirt that showed a brown, sinewy throat, high cowhide boots that reached to the knee, but were as destitute of heels as a Camp Fire Girl’s moccasins, and a bright red knitted cap fitting down over his head, with a scarlet tassel that flirted with the young gust from the east as he stood on a low sand-hill, alert to catch another cry.

Hardly the interval of three seconds elapsed before it came, quivering with the same horrified, passionate terror as the first.

At its first appealing note Stack started off, dashing up the tunneled sand-hill with long springs—like the wild deer that so often traversed these lonely dunes—and down the sandy pyramid upon the other side, landing, breathless, upon the narrow strip of beach for which Jessica had been making. Thence he had a view of the broad, jutting point called the Neck and of its flanking sandspits, brown areas of sand on which the wild tide was slowly encroaching, and of something sticking up like a dark stump from a sinister patch of sands, not thirty yards off, the sinking figure of a girl in a dark sweater, already nearly buried to the waist.

Without a shade of hesitation Miles Stackpole, Eagle Scout, made a valiant dash for the wetter sands to reach that figure.

The agonized victim saw him coming. In a vague way she recognized him. He had no green and red stripes, no rich points of color, embroidered merit badges, upon his sleeve to-day, no swooping eagle upon his breast. But he was the same tanned, eighteen-year-old lad who had taken the heavy deaf-and-dumb child, swamped by a cargo of green apples, from her dripping arms.

“Keep quiet! Don’t move!” he screamed to her. “More you struggle, faster you sink! I’ll——”

The brave pledge of help was never given. At the moment when he was within twenty feet of her, Jessica, transfixed, saw him rock and sway, saw one side of him grow suddenly shorter, beheld him, with admirable presence of mind, thrust his left leg out straight along the surface of the sands instead of setting its foot down,, and throw his khaki-clad body over to the left side, thus preventing his weight from falling upon the right leg which had already sunk deep.

He was helpless, caught in a patch of watery quicksands worse, even, than that which imprisoned her, seeing that the sucking sands gave way under the first pressure and let the bottomless water ooze in down deep beneath him.

In that position he was such a strange, in any other circumstances would have been such a ludicrous, figure, swaying on one leg, with the other stuck out level, like a performing acrobat or a barn-yard goose, that a weird shriek of laughter, palsied by terror, rocked forth from the girl’s throat.

Since she had seen the advent of this friendly human being from the sand-hills her fear was not so distracted as it had been, at first, in the drifting boat; whereas, if she had only known it, lying in a pool of water in a dory’s bottom among breakers was safety itself compared with her present peril.

In another few seconds, however, she felt the very framework of her sinking body freeze and stiffen, her heart drop down—down—like a stone which the quicksands swallowed before they devoured the rest of her, for she saw that her would-be rescuer, caught by the leg, with his arms in their khaki sleeves helplessly flapping like brown wings, fingers clutching at air in a desperate attempt to preserve his acrobatic position, was as powerless to extricate himself as she was—and, inch by inch, she was silently sinking farther.

It was as if an invisible monster, with a painless knack, was eating her, bit by bit, alive.

She looked beyond the swaying figure, shrunken upon one side, and saw a bare red head; it seemed to her that in some different world, ages before, she had seen that same red head on a boy outlined in the light of an oily, blazing broom.

She shrieked to the head for help. But somebody fiendishly put a restraining hand upon the shoulder belonging to the head and thrust the boy’s figure back as it began to advance toward her.

And what was this third heartless being doing? He was running away from her. Running up and down, this way and that, in frantic search, upon the beach.

Then, all at once, she heard a shout from him, a sort of defiant bellow wild as the roar of the southwesterly squall in which her sufferings had begun, primitive as the thunder of the surf upon the bar:

“Hólà! Hol’ up! I come!”

Before that big shout the sucking sands seemed to tremble as death, at times, cowers before Life.

It was Life, invincible Life, that was bearing down upon her now, as her glazed eyes dimly saw, a figure instinct with life, courage and resource from its high boots to the red, bobbing thing that danced like flame about its head as it ran.

On his shoulder this strange being carried, like a feather, a ten-foot plank, a stout piece of driftage which in his wild hither and thither search he had picked up on the beach—the beach which, here and there, was starred with silvery driftwood, just as were the Sugarloaf dunes, much of it being traveled logs or planks, lumber-waifs, swept across the bay from the mouth of some Maine river.

The red-crested being with the long thing on his shoulder came abreast of the brown manly figure still balancing itself upon one leg in the quicksands,—made a movement as if to lay down the plank as a bridge toward it.

But the Eagle Scout, racked with the effort to keep his left leg stuck out level upon the yielding surface, while his right had sunk to the thigh, shrieked at him:

“Don’t mind me!... Her!”

And almost immediately thereupon Jessica felt two hoisting hands under her armpits which were only a few inches above the sandy surface now. A figure loomed beside her balancing itself upon the long plank laid down over the watery sands, that brine-whitened plank supporting it in the same way that long snow-shoes will support a man upon soft snow where, without them, he would sink to his neck.

And now began the desperate tug of war between Life and Death, the fight for a girl’s life!

Captain Andy had classed it as the one feat of rescue next to impossible, to save a victim more than half of whose body had sunk in a patch of quicksands. At another time he had spoken of those sands which sucked in water beneath the surface as “clinging like a cat,” a clawed wildcat, to anything on which they got a sucking hold.

He had told how they would grip an upright board partially sunk in them as in a mould, so that no strength of his could dislodge it.

But if the sands held on to their prey like a wildcat, the being upon the plank, with a ruddy tassel bobbing about his swarthy face, like a live flame flickering out from the fire in his body, had the fierce tenacity of a bulldog.

The froth came out upon his lip as he strained every sinew to raise the girl’s body an inch, to lift her by her armpits and shoulders.

The breath fairly shrieked through his nostrils and open mouth with his hoisting struggles, as if he were a derrick with a whining pulley inside him.

He was a woodsman. In his veins coursed the irresistible life of the woods which when the sap runs freely in the hidden roots of a young tree will make it cleave the solid rock in order to find daylight and grow, if every other outlet is denied it.

It was like cleaving the granite rock to draw this girl’s body, three-parts sunken, back to daylight—a terrible duel between sand and man—in which Jessica felt as if her arms were being torn quivering from their sockets.

But, glory to Life! the man won.

Little by little the quicksands loosened their sucking hold; inch by inch she was lifted until the sands had no further claim even upon her feet in their soaking canvas shoes.

Then, free, she was borne along the bridging plank in the arms which had rescued her and on over the sands to the very first firm spot, where she was thrown down almost violently in the rescuer’s hurry to get back with the plank to the aid of the Eagle Scout whose distorted body could not maintain its crooked position any longer, even for dear life’s sake.

Jessica felt a boyish hand helping her to her feet, presently, and guiding her along to the beach, she following blindly.

The boy’s head was very red, his face like chalk.

“Oh!” he said, and she recognized Kenjo’s voice. “Oh-h! if Toiney hadn’t been here, you’d have kept on going an’ going—you’d have sunk out o’ sight in five minutes. I—I couldn’t ha’ got out to you, after Stack got stuck!”

“‘Five minutes!’” The girl stopped and stared at him wildly, snatching her hand away. “Oh, I should think you’d know enough not to say a thing like that—to me!”

Her nerves gave way. She threw herself down on the drying beach and sobbed and sobbed as she had never cried even in childhood when, according to her Cousin Anne, she had the happiest child-disposition in the world, when she took her gaiety to bed with her, played a “flower game” with her mother at night and won the name of Morning-Glory.

The Morning-Glory had been through too sore a storm to lift its head for a while; it cowered, beaten and draggled upon its vine: in other words, Jessica, wet to the skin through her heavy sweater, sand-coated from her shoulders to her canvas toes, curled down upon the beach, her cold cheek pillowed upon its safe sands and utterly refused to be comforted.

In vain the two Boy Scouts assured her that she was all right now, that just as soon as she got over her fright they would take her to their Boy Scout Camp away off among the dunes or, better still, to another summer camp, not so distant, where there were women and she could get some dry clothes, because “we don’t want to rig a Camp Fire Girl up as a boy!” said Kenjo half-bashfully.

The overwrought girl paid no heed to them. At last as the nervous storm spent itself, she lifted her head a little and noticed sitting before her on the beach a figure in a blue shirt with a close-fitting red, tasseled cap upon its head and a long plank at its feet.

It was Toiney, her lithe, sinewy figure rescuer, whom she had heard Kenjo laud as being “queer stuff, but the stuff,” on the evening that Ken and his brother Scout who imagined himself poisoned had spent at the girls’ camp on the Sugarloaf.

Vaguely she remembered hearing Kenjo say that this Toiney was a French-Canadian with a little remote strain of Indian blood in him, who gave the Scouts lessons in wood-craft, trailing and tracking.

Presently Toiney glanced round at her and muttered consolingly in the funniest jumble of dialect French and broken English: “Tiens! ma fille, t’as pas besoin to cryee—engh?” Then he began to relieve his feelings by softly abusing the quicksands. “Ach, diable! she’s devil quicksan’,” he gurgled. “She’s bad, dam’ devil quicksan’!” the flicking of his red tassel lending color to the curses.

“Oh! don’t call the—the quicksands ‘she’!” Morning-Glory suddenly sat up, indignant on behalf of her sex, a little hysterical spasm of laughter contending with her sobs; because she was no pure, passionless flower, but a very human girl, it did her a rousing lot of good to hear the quicksands called bad names, after their treating her so meanly when the sea had cast her ashore among them.

“Engh?” Toiney grunted questioningly as he looked over his blue shoulder at her. “Sapré! w’at time I’ll see you sink in her, I’ll t’ink I see two, t’ree girl go down!”

“Oh! one was enough.” Jessica’s laugh pattered now between her chattering teeth, like sunlit hail through rain; she understood her rescuer’s description of the dazed horror in which he had sought up and down for a saving plank.

“How on earth did you come to be by yourself on that lonely part of the Neck—and so wet, too?” asked Miles Stackpole whose skin had not the golden hue at this minute that it showed when he worked for the resuscitation of little, deaf-and-dumb Rebecca; instead it betrayed a greenish tinge around the edges of his tan; three or four minutes of being trapped by one leg in wicked quicksands, knowing that the other limb, stretched out along their sucking surface, was very slowly sinking, too, that he would certainly be swallowed up alive if help did not come, and quickly, was no enviable experience.

And he understood the peril better than the girl-victim upon whose sand-plastered, draggled condition he now looked with chivalrous pity while he questioned her.

“I was out in a rowboat, alone, on the river when the squall came on; I lost an oar—I hope the other one is in the dory still; they were such pretty oars, all painted over on blades and handles with our Camp Fire symbols—at first I wanted to stand up in the boat and yell and yell—I was so frightened—for it was just frightfully rough; it seemed every minute as if the waves would roll the dory over, topsy-turvy. But I remembered that”—the girl’s voice was still broken and breathless—“that Captain Andy told us Camp Fire Girls that if one of us was ever caught in such a predicament and couldn’t row, the only hope was to flatten oneself to a flounder in the dory’s bottom. Well! I did—and a pretty wet flounder I was.”

“Then that sou’westerly squall swept the boat down the river, I suppose, before the wind shifted round to the east,” suggested Stack. “Were you cast ashore on the Neck?”

“I felt the dory’s bottom touch—then d’you suppose ’twould take me long to flounder out of her?” chuckled the girl. The Morning-Glory spirit, the little touch of humor, though draggled, was reviving in her.

“If it hadn’t been for hearing your voices among the dunes I might have got along all right, for Captain Andy had warned us about quicksands and said ‘they’d fool you,’ so I crept along on all fours, at first, after landing, teetering this way an’ that—you might have taken me for a seal if you’d seen me from a distance!” laughing shakily.

“But ’twas all so wild and lonely!” with a gasp. “I wanted to get where the voices were. And”—a sudden recollection came to her,—she dimpled mischievously—“I heard you shout to each other about digging—digging for buried treasure—Kenjo told us what the very old man who was hunting hen-clams said about strange coins being picked up near here.... I saw something bright, like silver, flashing after the rain, in the side of that sand-hill there—I thought I might get ahead of you....”

“Where was it?” Stack was up like an arrow; the gold-microbe working in him again as an antidote to the quicksands’ scare. “Can you show me where it was?”

He moistened his lips eagerly.

Morning-Glory, appealed to thus, dragged herself, with his help, to her feet; the eyes which were so like her great-grandfather’s in the old miniature searched gravely the side of the sand-pyramid.

“No, I can’t—see—it—now. Ye-es, I do, though!There it is!” She pointed triumphantly to a sparkle in one of the wind-hollowed grooves of the wet sand-hill.

“Where? Where? Yes, I see—I’m on to it now!”

Stack was ploughing up the sodden sand-peak, in his drab gaiters and sand-coated khaki, only a shade less quickly than he had crossed it a few minutes before on hearing the girl’s cry for help.

He reached the sandy niche of the “bright shell,” stooped and picked up something.

Those below saw him reel as he looked at it, as if he had a sunstroke.

The next minute dunes, beach, Neck, sands-pits—the very quicksands themselves—rang with a new cry, wild, amazed, whooping, triumphant.

“Oh-h! let’s go an’ see what it is—what he’s found!” gasped the girl who had seen the bright thing from afar.

“I guess you won’t find it easy climbing in those wet clothes! Here, let me help you!” volunteered Kenjo, aflame all over with a curiosity greater than Boy Scout had ever known before.

Up the wet sand-mound they plodded. Toiney, picking up the dwarf-stemmed pipe which he had thrown away in his search for a plank, arose and followed them.

“My eye! Stack’s gone clean daffy over something,” panted Kenjo.

Well might he gasp; Miles Stackpole, Eagle Scout, was yelling like a Comanche, dancing like a madman among the wet, plumy beach-grass that thatched the tall sand-mound.

“What is it? What have you found?” The foremost climbers, hand in hand, were stumbling, tripping—shrieking in a clamorous duet.

“Oh! look and see. Our fortune’s made! There must—must be more where this came from!”

That which the finder held out to his companions, that which the sou’westerly squall had unearthed, unsanded, rather, upon the side of this wet sand-dune was a large, antique silver coin of a size and stamp such as neither Boy Scouts nor Camp Fire Girl had ever seen before, even in their dreams of fairy-land.


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