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CHAPTER V A PERILOUS SITUATION
Though Kenneth was elated enough when he left the centre of the city and started for the river front, his heart sank within him when he caught sight of the water. The swift current was carrying great pieces of ice, which gleamed white against the dark stream. The ice cakes were close together, and as the boy thought of the scant three-eighths of an inch thickness of “His Nibs’s” sides, He despaired of reaching the yacht anchored on the other shore.

“But what shall I do?” he asked himself. “The boys haven’t any boat, and I’ve got the eatables.”

It seemed hard that he should fall from one nerve-racking experience into another, with scarcely a breathing space between times.

For the next five minutes or so he studied the surface of the water, hoping that a time would come when the ice ran less thick; but he realized that each minute of waiting was precious daylight lost. Running down the sloping bank of the levee, he tumbled his bundles into the frail little boat, unmoored her, and pushed out between two monster river steamboats.

For a minute he paused to pull himself together, saw that all was snug on board, settled his cap more firmly on his head, and prepared for the struggle to come.

Then out from the shelter of the huge boats he shot—nerves tense, eyes alert; “His Nibs” was on its best behavior, and obeyed its master’s slightest touch, as if it understood the desperate situation. The rowboat was short, and so could spin around like a top on occasion.

The river seemed bent on destroying the boy and his little craft. It hurled great chunks of sharp-edged ice at him in quick succession, but he always succeeded in dodging them somehow. Twisting this way and that, now up stream, now down, he made his way painfully over toward the “Gazelle,” lying so peacefully at anchor in the little cove near the other shore. A warning shout told the three boys that the captain they were so anxious about was returning, and they rushed on deck to greet him. It was well they did so, for he had hardly strength enough to throw them “His Nibs’s” painter and climb aboard.

“Boys,” said Ransom, after he had told of his adventures, “St. Louis is a nice city, but let’s get out. It’s hoodooed for me.”

In spite of Ransom’s determination to leave St. Louis at once, however, it was several days before the ice permitted them to move from their anchorage. Many friends had been made in the meantime, and nothing unpleasant occurred, so that it was with a feeling of regret rather than of joy that the voyagers finally pulled up the mud hook and began in earnest the sail down the Mississippi.

The newspapers had found out that the “Gazelle” and her crew were in port, and many of the inhabitants knew about and were interested in the little craft and her youthful sailors.

The channel followed the city side of the river, and as the “Gazelle” got under way the steamboats lining the levee, bow in, stern out, gave her a rousing salute on whistles of varying tones. People on deck waved their hands and shouted “Good luck!” and a “God speed!”

The ice was still very much in evidence, and kept the steersman busy on the lookout; but Kenneth managed in spite of that to enjoy the attention which they received.

“St. Louis is not so bad a place, after all,” he declared with a change of heart.

The ice gave the youngsters a great deal of trouble. It was necessary to keep on the watch continually, and to luff or tack every little while to avoid slamming into a jagged-edged piece. The channel was very crooked, and crossed continually from one side of the stream to the other. The “Father of Waters” had a decided mind of his own, and no matter how carefully and laboriously a straight channel was dredged, he was quite likely to abandon it and make a new one.

The boys found the course a continual puzzle, and fairly gasped when they thought of the 1,200 miles of it still before them. But though the experience was trying, it was valuable, and especially so to Ransom, who learned just what a boat can do under numerous and ever varying circumstances. It was the most intimate sort of experience; their very existence depending upon surmounting each difficulty in turn.

The first afternoon’s run was thirty-eight miles, which, considering the many delays on account of ice, the “crossings” and their unfamiliarity with the river’s peculiarities, the boys thought very good. It was a rather trying sail, however, and all hands were glad when a snug little bend opened up—deep enough to give shelter to the yacht.

All four of the boys were by this time well-seasoned sailors. They had had some hard knocks, had been through many close shaves, knew what it was to be cold, hungry, and tired; but as time went on they had become closer and closer friends. They learned to put up with each other’s little peculiarities, and shook down into a harmonious ship’s company—a cheerful atmosphere prevailed that promised final success, and was not only an inspiration to themselves but to all who saw it. Their solid friendship was to be sorely tested. Just how solid it was, was shortly to be proved in a most unexpected manner.

Each had his special duties to perform, and as the voyage grew in length each became more and more proficient. This was especially true of the cook, Clyde. Not that he was a poor one at the start, for he had shipped with the recommendation that in ten minutes he could cook a meal that the four could not eat in ten days. This was a little far-fetched, however, for the “rules and regulations” very plainly stated that any one who could not satisfy his appetite in five hours would be obliged to wait until the next meal. Nevertheless, the cook was very modest, and explained his improvement by saying that it was due to his becoming familiar with his quarters. In proof of which, lie showed some pancakes which were not only round but also flat. In the beginning, owing to the listing of the vessel under the pressure of the wind on her sails, the batter would run to one side of the pan, and the pancakes were often quite able to stand alone on end.

None of the boys could handle a needle very deftly at first, but they soon became very good seamsters. They even progressed so far in the art that they began to openly boast of their skill. Frank returned one night from a hunting trip ashore with a number of ducks and a shy look about him which his companions were at a loss to account for, until they discovered an unbecomingly big tear in his trousers. After supper he tackled the gap with a big needle and a couple of yards of linen thread. He wanted to have it good and strong, he explained.

Frank did not bother to take his trousers off, but began to sew the rent baseball-seam fashion, and though the result was not elegant as regards mere looks, he certainly accomplished his object, and he was justly proud of his achievement.

“Any of you fellows want any sewing done?” he remarked airily, as he sawed off the end of the thread. “I am going to paint on the mainsail, in beautiful, gilt script letters, ‘Monsieur Chauvet, Modes,’ and rig you fellows up in natty sailor uniforms to ferry my customers over to me.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Arthur remarked (he had been busy writing while Frank was embroidering); “I can sew (lo) a little, myself; listen.”

He dodged a pillow, a spool, a ball of tarred twine and a book, and then began the following:
Gazelle, Gazelle,
She’ll run pell mell,
With every stitch a-drawing,
O’er waters smooth
And waters rough,
The seas her forefoot spurning.
Gazelle, Gazelle,
She’s quite a swell;
But yet there’s no denying,
If needs she must
Do it or bust,
She’ll be at anchor lying.
Gazelle, Gazelle,
You must do well,
On you depends our winning;
For ’tis our boast,
From lake to coast,
You’ll bring us through a-spinning.

“For the sake of the song we’ll forgive the pun, if you never let it occur again,” said Ransom judicially.

It was late when they turned in that night, and Ransom was just on the verge of dozing off when he heard a great rustling in Frank’s bunk across the cabin. Clyde and Arthur were asleep, so Ransom whispered, “What’s the matter, old man?”

“Oh, Ken, I’m in trouble.” There was a kind of gurgle in his voice that stilled the captain’s anxiety. “If ever I get toploftical, you just pipe up a song about a fellow that sewed his outer clothes to his underclothes.” Then followed a savage, ripping sound, which bespoke a tragedy, and all was still again.

In spite of their best efforts, it seemed as if the elements were against the young voyagers. One day a heavy mist fell, and made the following of the channel nothing more nor less than a game of blindman’s buff, with the fun excluded, and a few sand bars, rocks and snags thrown in to make it interesting. Another day the snow fell so heavily that they had to tie up, the channel marks being obscured. Here they went ashore and visited the town of Herculaneum, a mining village, where Arthur and Kenneth took in the lead-smelting furnaces, while Frank and Clyde stayed aboard.

Just before dark some river steamers passed and showed them the channel, and the boys gladly took advantage of their lead. The government dredges afforded Kenneth and his friends an opportunity to get acquainted with a new kind of craft, which the young ship designer was especially glad of. The government’s dredging and snag-pulling boats are among the largest and most expensive in the world. It takes an endless amount of money and effort to harness the Mississippi, and the government is making a great fight to keep the river free of obstructions.

At Wittenberg, Missouri, where the boys tied up for a night, they got some much appreciated information from the usually taciturn river men about the Grand Tower Whirlpool. It was a spot which they had heard of way back in the Illinois River towns, as one of the most dangerous places on the old Mississippi.

It is the graveyard of many a fine river packet, and it can hardly be wondered at that our cruisers dreaded it greatly. A sharp bend in the river makes an eddy that has terrible suction power. To the left the water shoals rapidly, the bottom is covered with rocks, and is the resting place of snags, logs and all the débris that menace navigation. Between this “Scylla and Charybdis” is the narrow channel. It is a spot to make even the experienced steamboat man think of his accident insurance policy, and it seemed almost madness for the young sailors, aided by the wind alone, to attempt to run the dangerous place.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Half a gale was blowing straight down stream—that is, straight down stream when the river happened to flow north and south. Little whitecaps were puffed up from the brown flood, and streaks of ripples showed where the wind got a favorable slant. It looked squally, and it required all the resolution that the boys possessed to make the trial, the outcome of which would mean success or destruction. But they knew that indecision went hand in hand with failure, and they took their courage in both hands manfully and prepared for the ordeal.

“You can keep her going with a wind like this back of you,” a new-found friend shouted as he cast off the line. “You’ll have plenty of steerage way. Follow the marks, and you’re O. K.” The last words grew fainter and fainter as the “Gazelle” fled away before the wind like a bird. Her motion was so swift, so sure, that the sailors she bore took heart and watched eagerly for the marks that would tell of their approach to the dread spot.

“There’s the beacon,” shouted Frank, who was on lookout duty forward.

Kenneth shifted the helm a little and bore nearer to shore.

“There’s the other one,” yelled Frank, “off our port bow.”

Again the tiller was moved, this time a trifle to starboard.

The wind was blowing dead aft, almost a gale, and the “Gazelle” fled before it like a frightened thing. The speed of the current, too, increased. They were going like a race horse. Floating cakes of ice were left behind in a trice; the trees on shore flashed past like spectres. It was a terrible pace. They passed a point, and there in the curve of the bend the whirlpool seethed—a veritable cauldron of tumbling, foaming, riotous water. To the left the water was broken and frothy. The tough roots of uprooted trees reached out of the worried stream, and black rocks protruded like ugly teeth.

Between the two places of destruction ran a smooth, swift, straight channel, and for this the “Gazelle” headed like a well-aimed arrow. In an instant she was speeding through. To the right the whirlpool twisted and tossed—on the other side gaped the rock-toothed shoal. Straight on flew the boat, swifter and swifter, her crew quiet and steady, ready for whatever might come.

In a moment it was over, and the yacht was sailing smoothly on the comparatively still waters beyond.

“Good work, old girl!” Kenneth exclaimed half aloud. With each trial the boys had gained confidence in the boat until they had come to have an affection for her that made them wish there was some personal way of showing her their trust and regard.

The channel beyond Grand Tower was straight, deep and broad. The “Gazelle” bounded along, the breeze astern, at such a swift pace that she covered the twelve good miles to Devil’s Island in one hour.

The crew were in high glee now, and enjoyed every minute to the full; but, after all, they merely served to prove the truth of the proverb: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

The water shoaled rapidly, and all at once, without warning of any kind, the yacht stopped as if some giant’s hand had grasped her keel and suddenly stayed her flight. Why it did not shake the masts off from her, the crew could never understand.

“Pull up the board, Clyde!” Kenneth shouted to that member of the company, who was below when the shock came. The boy picked himself up, and pulled at the line which ran through a pulley made fast to the deck beams, and through a corresponding block on the centre-board. He tugged and tugged, but the weight of the wind on the sails jammed the board in its trunk, and he could not move it.

The canvas was lowered and then the board came up. Arthur took “His Nibs” and an anchor which he intended to drop overboard some distance from the yacht, when it would serve as a kedge to pull her over the obstruction, but before the mate got far enough to drop the hook, the sails, which had been raised meantime, caught the strong wind and hurried the yacht over the bar.

The “Gazelle” bounded forward.

“Heave over the anchor, Art!” Kenneth shouted, as he jumped to the tiller. But the iron was so heavy and the speed of the yacht so great that the slack was taken in before the mate could obey the command. In an instant “His Nibs” was capsized and the mate was swimming round in the cold water in company with the cakes of ice. He soon found that the water only reached to his waist, however, and he waded quickly to “His Nibs,” bailed the boat out, and paddled over to the “Gazelle,” which had meantime come up into the wind and was fast to the anchor dropped when the small boat capsized.

“Well,” said Arthur, as he scrambled aboard, “maybe I got excited, but I kept cool all right.” He chuckled at his wit, though his teeth chattered suggestively, and he had a blue look which his friends did not like to see. A sharp rub down, a change of clothing, and a cup of hot coffee brought him around in short order.

After this experience luck seemed to be with the boys. They sailed down the wide river, crossing from side to side as the channel dictated, but with favoring winds and bright skies. The great stream was never monotonous, especially to the crew of a sailing craft. It is full of surprises and interests; its channel turns and twists many times in a mile and changes every day.

But woe betide the vessel that depended on a misplaced beacon. It was this that nearly, so very nearly, ended the career of the “Gazelle” and her crew. At Goose Island, on the Missouri side, they ran aground, having laid their course according to a misplaced light.

It was a very serious situation which these youngsters had to face. The boat was caught hard and fast in a stream running from four to five miles an hour, carrying great chunks of ice that struck all obstacles with the force of battering rams. The bar was almost in midstream, too far away from shore to hail. A small boat of “His Nibs’s” strength would not live in the ice ten minutes. It was about as grim a predicament as could be imagined. All the sails were spread, the board raised, and the crew, with the exception of the man at the helm, shoved with oars for hours; but the “Gazelle” did not budge an inch.

Then they tried to take an anchor out, but “His Nibs” was no sooner put overboard than a big cake of ice came along and gave the light little craft such a terrific thump that the boys pulled her in hurriedly—they could not afford to run any risks with the only means they had of reaching shore.

Hour by hour the cold increased, until it got close to the zero mark, and as the weather became colder the streams supplying the Mississippi froze up, and the water of the great stream grew less and less.

The boys worked with desperation—stayed up late at night and rose at daybreak, hoping for a rise of water or a favorable slant of wind. The increased cold made it necessary to keep the oil stove burning, and the fuel began to get low. While sailing along the river, whose banks were lined with towns, the boys did not lay in a great stock of provisions; they thought it better to get them in fresh as frequently as possible.

“Well, Ken,” Clyde remarked the third day of their imprisonment on the bar, “we will have to live on raw potatoes and river water pretty soon. My oil is about gone, and everything else is almost eaten up.”

“There is one more thing to do,” the captain said at length. “Throw out our pig iron ballast. I hate to lose it, but it is the only thing left to do.”

All of the boys showed the effects of tremendously hard work, of the fight with cold and ice, with wind and water, but Kenneth was particularly worn. On him fell the responsibility. The others were in his care, and if anything happened to them he knew he would be held accountable. The constant strain, the lack of sleep—he was up all hours of the night—and his anxiety, told on even his rugged health. He grew perceptibly thinner in three days, dark rings showed under his eyes, and little things vexed him unwarrantably. They were all irritable, and it speaks well for their closely knit friendship that no words arose between them.

“Well, boys,” Kenneth said, cheerfully enough, “let’s play our last card. Let’s turn to and throw over the ballast.”

It was hard work lugging the heavy sash weights that made up the ballast from below and throwing them over the side. There was at least half a ton to be discarded, and by the time the last of it was overboard the boys thought that there must have been tons.

Guess, then, how their hearts leaped with joy when at last, after three weary days, the “Gazelle” floated over the bar and into deeper water. But it was a short-lived triumph, for they speedily found that there was another bar across the channel—the low water almost bared it, and they realized that they were trapped in a little basin a half-mile from shore, with absolutely no protection from the ice, which was running heavier and heavier.

To anchor and wait, trusting to Providence, was all that they could do. So two anchors were dropped, and the boys faced the situation. The weather continued piercing cold. The oil gave out altogether, and then the crew had to live on cold things and exist as best they could in the cold cabin.

“SAW THE GREAT CAKES OF ICE GO RACING BY.”

The strain was even harder to bear than the cold and hunger. Great chunks of ice came sailing down on them continually, and the boys wondered each time if the “Gazelle” would be able to stand another such hard knock.

The bar beyond caught the majority of the larger chunks, and soon an ice gorge was formed that hourly grew bigger until the “Gazelle’s” stern was not twenty yards from it. Each new cake added to the heap, and formed new teeth, which were ever moving in the rushing current—teeth which would grind up any living thing in a very few moments.

The second night after the “Gazelle” got afloat the boys were in the cabin, and all but Kenneth had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion—the recurring bumps of drifting cakes of ice not disturbing them in the least. But Ransom could not sleep. He could not forget the horrible danger which they were in, nor could he shut his ears to the sound of crunching ice just behind the yacht.

Of a sudden there came a jar with a new quality in it. Ransom rushed up the companionway, grabbing his woollen cap as he ran, then forward over the icy deck. He found the ragged, frayed end of the anchor cable hanging overboard. The constant rubbing of the ice had weakened it, and the extra heavy floe had completely sundered it. There was but one anchor now to depend on; if that should fail them, it would mean instant destruction to the yacht and certain death for her crew.

It was too great a risk to run—that other anchor must be found somehow, and its holding power made good again.

Realizing that his companions would try to deter him from the desperate undertaking which he had in mind, Ransom did not call his friends, but quietly launched “His Nibs” from the stern, in spite of the current and the remorseless ice, and drawing her forward by the painter he got in at the bow and prepared to feel for the parted anchor cable with a boat hook. He pulled hand over hand on the cable of the other anchor, and finally gained a point where he thought he might begin to reach for the sunken line. It was well past midnight, and so dark that everything had to be done by sense of touch only. Intensely cold, the oars, the line he was holding, and the boat hook—everything, in fact, was coated with a slippery skin of ice.

Holding on by one hand to the anchor cable and the boat hook with the other, Kenneth began to grope for the other line. His right arm ached with the exertion of feeling on the bottom with a heavy boat hook, while his left wrist seemed about to break with the strain put upon it; the cold nipped at his exposed face and wet, mittened hands. But still he persevered. At last he felt the touch of the line at the end of his pole; he began to haul in slowly—holding with his elbow the pole as he took a fresh hold further up. Suddenly a huge floe struck the little boat, dragging the anchor line out of his grasp, and pulled him backwards into the bottom of the boat. The current swept him back past the “Gazelle” and on toward the gnashing teeth of the gorge.



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