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CHAPTER VI AN ARCTIC ADVENTURE
“Arthur—Clyde—Frank! O-o-o-oh boys!”

It was a despairing cry that rang over those dismal, freezing waters. “Help!”

It was too late—no help from the “Gazelle” could save the boy in his frail craft. The current had swept him beyond the reach of any one on board, even if a soul had been awake to hear his call for help.

The grinding, crushing, gnashing sound of the crumbling ice on the gorge grew nearer and nearer.

Kenneth scrambled to a sitting posture, and searched with groping hands in the darkness for the oars. At last he found them. No—only one—a misplaced brace deceived him. Again he searched, with desperate haste. He could hear the lap of the water on the piled-up floes now. The other oar was not there; he dimly remembered now that he dropped it when he fell backward.

Putting out his one oar he began to scull with it, but the boat had drifted round broadside to the current, and he could not head it away from the inexorable wall of ice now so close. At last he gave the struggle up and trusted to Providence. He comprehended how puny and futile his own strength was compared to the power of these mighty odds. The boat drifted nearer and nearer to what seemed certain destruction. Ransom crouched low, prepared to spring to any cake that might bear his weight—it was his only chance. He grasped the painter of the boat in his hand, and as soon as he felt the first bump of the broken ice against “His Nibs’s” side, he sprang at a white surface that showed dimly before him. By some lucky chance, or rather owing to a merciful God, it was a large floe, which, though it tottered and tipped dangerously, did not capsize. It bore the boy’s weight bravely. For a minute Kenneth paused for breath, then he noticed that “His Nibs” was being battered and ground by the constant action of the ice. He peered into the darkness to see how large his floating island was, and stepped cautiously this way and that to test its stability. It swayed frightfully, but the boy determined to risk adding the extra weight of the small boat. Inch by inch he drew it over the slippery surface, and deeper and deeper sank the ice island on that side until it was submerged a half a foot or so. Kenneth stood on the sharply inclined slippery ice in imminent danger of sliding off. Though it was zero weather, the perspiration stood out on his forehead in beads, and ran into his eyes till it blinded him. Gradually “His Nibs” was hauled up till it rested beside him, for the time, at least, secure.

For a space he rested his aching limbs and bruised back. The white shape of the “Gazelle” could be faintly made out through the gloom, so near and yet absolutely unattainable. Never before had the boy—the designer, builder and owner of the craft—so yearned for her. She was cold, cheerless, and in extreme peril herself, but she seemed a very haven of rest and security to the castaway.

Kenneth knew that he must fight for his own life and that no aid would be forthcoming from the yacht, and he began to study the situation. Grim enough he found it. A strong current bore down on the gorge, carrying ice and débris of every kind, grinding away at the edge of Ransom’s floe. It was evident that it would break up eventually, and the boy prayed that it would last till he should find some other refuge. He noticed that bits of wood and fragments of ice floated off to the right after colliding with the obstruction. This set him to thinking. There must be some break through, that caused the current to swerve. He looked long and intently to the right, but could make out nothing in the darkness. He felt sure, however, that there must be a channel somewhere, and he determined to find it. With great and laborious care he launched the boat and sprang into it. Fending off from the teeth of the gorge with his oar, he worked his way gradually to the right. Twice he had to jump to a floe and haul his boat out from between two grinding cakes. But in spite of the labor, of darkness, of weary limbs, and hands numbed with cold, he gained, until at last he reached the gap and was carried through. He floated nearly a mile before he could make his way to shore. It was bleak enough, but he uttered a fervent “Thank God” as he set foot on solid ground. The river bordered a cornfield at this point, and many of the rotting stacks were still standing. Kenneth made for one of these and burrowing into it, sank down to rest. He was desperately weary and almost unbearably cold, but thankful to his heart’s core for his escape.

“If I could only rest here till morning,” he thought. It was a sheltered spot, and he began to feel the reaction following his tremendous exertions. He was languid and drowsy, and his fast stiffening muscles cried out for rest. It was a temptation the sorely tried boy found hard to resist; but the thought of his friends aboard the yacht, their state of mind when they discovered his absence, and the loss of their only means of reaching shore, urged him on and gave him no peace. His imagination pictured the hazardous things the boys might do if he was not there to calm them. As he lay curled up on the frozen ground, under the stiflingly dusty stalks, visions rose of the boys jumping overboard and attempting to swim ashore; of their setting the “Gazelle” adrift in the hope that she would reach the bank. Many other waking dreams disturbed him, most of them absolutely impracticable, but to his overtired and excited imagination painfully real, and his anxiety finally drove him out of his nest into the biting cold again.

Then Kenneth stopped to think, to plan, a minute. He had but one oar—he could not row against the strong current and floating ice—he could not drag the boat through the water, the shore was too uneven and fringed, moreover, with ice. Bare fields and brown waters surrounded him, there was no sign of human habitation, there was no help to be had, and he must reach the yacht that night—but how? He studied hard, and could think of but one way—to drag the boat overland till he was above the “Gazelle’s” anchorage, then launch it and drift down with the current.

How great the distance was he did not know, but he realized that it was a long way and that the journey could only be made by the hardest kind of work, under the most trying of circumstances.

His very body revolted at the cruelly hard exertions, every nerve and muscle crying for rest; but his will was strong, and he forced his aching body to do his bidding.

“His Nibs” weighed but seventy-five pounds with her entire equipment, but what the boat lacked in avoirdupois it gained twofold in bulkiness. There was some snow on the ground, and this helped somewhat to slide the small craft along on its strange overland journey.

So began the hardest experience Ransom had ever yet encountered. Facing the stiff wind and zero temperature, he slowly dragged the dead weight over the thinly frosted ground. Oh, so slowly he crawled along; now going round an obstruction, now climbing over a stump—forever hauling the reluctant boat along. Every few hundred yards the nearly exhausted lad stopped to catch his breath and rest under a heap of cornstalks or a mound of rubbish, burrowing like an animal. His hands and feet ached with cold, several times his ears lost their sense of feeling and had to be rubbed back to life with snow.

He grew dizzy with faintness, for it will be remembered that he, with the other boys, had had insufficient food for days, and he had not eaten a morsel since six o’clock. His back ached, his legs ached, his head ached, he was utterly exhausted; but still he kept on doggedly. At last he reached a point on a line with the “Gazelle;” he could just make her out silhouetted against the sombre sky. He knew his journey was nearly at an end, and he went forward with a last desperate gathering together of his powers. At length, judging that he was far enough up stream to launch, he shoved “His Nibs’s” stem into the water with fear and trembling, for the little craft had passed through a trying ordeal, scraping over rough ground, stones and sticks. Ransom could not see if the frail craft leaked, but it certainly floated. He jumped in and pushed off, still anxious but hopeful, feeling that he was homeward bound. The “Gazelle” was still afloat—the thought cheered him.

With the single oar in hand he sat in the stern sheets, and using it as both a rudder and a propeller, he avoided some floes and lessened the shock of contact with others.

At last the “Gazelle” loomed up ahead, serene and steady—the dearest spot on earth to the castaway.

“All right, boys,” Kenneth shouted huskily as he drew near, “I’m O. K.”

There was no response.

“His Nibs” swept alongside and Kenneth, grasping at the shrouds, stopped himself and clambered stiffly aboard. All was quiet. His imagination pictured all sorts of horrible mishaps to the crew, and he ran aft, stopping only to secure “His Nibs.” Yanking open the frosted hatch, he pulled open the door and rushed below.

A chorus of snores greeted him. Not one of them knew he had been gone four hours.

Kenneth did not disturb them; but after hauling the small boat on deck out of harm’s way he crawled into his bunk and fell into the stupor of utter exhaustion.

Early next morning all hands were wakened by the bump and crash of ice, and another day of anxiety began. The morning after, however, found an improvement in the conditions—the ice had almost stopped running and the weather moderated. “His Nibs” was launched and the bottom was sounded for half a mile in every direction, in hopes that a channel might be found to shore, or down the river to a more sheltered spot. But bars obstructed everywhere. There was no water deep enough to float the yacht at her present draft, except in the basin in which she rested.

“Well, here goes the rest of our ballast,” said Ransom, after the last soundings had been taken; and all hands began with what strength they had left to heave over the iron. By taking down the rigging and tying it together, it was found that a line could be made fast to shore. The sturdy little anchor was raised and the “Gazelle,” working her windlass, was drawn to the bank. In her lightened condition she floated over the bars. Once more they were safe, and the boys felt that God had been good to them to bring them through so many perils.

Frank, the nimrod of the party, went ashore and shot a rabbit; a fire was built, and soon all hands were feasting on hot, nourishing food—the first for many days. How good it tasted only those who have been nearly starved can realize.

The sleep which the four voyagers put in the night of the 12th of December, 1898, was like that of hibernating bears, and fully as restful.

Kenneth and Arthur drew the long strands of yarn this time, and set off to find Commerce, Missouri, ten miles across country.

It was a long walk, but the two boys enjoyed it hugely—indeed, it was a relief to be able to walk straight ahead without having to stop to turn at the end of a cockpit or the butt of a bowsprit.

For the first few miles the talk was continuous, and many were the jokes about the mockery of the phrase “The Sunny South” when the mercury lingered about the zero mark. But as they neared the end of their journey they talked less, and put more of their strength into the unaccustomed exercise of walking.

Reaching the town, they telegraphed home that all was well—a message which they knew would relieve much anxiety. They also wrote to the postmasters along the line to send mail to the crew at Commerce. Then, for the first time in two months, they slept in a bed—a luxury they felt they fully deserved. The boarding-house at which they had put up was a clean, pleasant place, and the bed—the feather variety—seemed veritably heaven to them.

Two pleasant girls were also staying at this house, and the boys had the added pleasure of feminine society. They talked to the interested maidens of their adventures until the girls’ faces flushed and their eyes brightened—yes, and moistened even—with sympathy when they were told of an especially trying experience.

They had had many interested listeners all along the line, but the hero-worshipping look in the eyes of the two girls was particularly sweet to the boys.

“Say, Ken,” Arthur said comfortably, as he tumbled into bed, “let’s stay a week.”

“Yes, this bed is immense, isn’t it?”

“Oh, hang the bed!” Arthur growled. “You’re the most material duffer; there is something besides creature comforts in this world, after all, you know.”

“No, I am not. I appreciate a pretty audience as much as”—Ransom interrupted himself with a yawn—“you do, but whaz-zer use of discussing——”

Another yawn stopped his speech, and at the end of it he was sound asleep.

“H’m!” grunted Arthur in disgust, and he turned his back upon him.

The purchases the two made the next day weighted their backs but lightened their pockets, and Ransom had to telegraph for more money.

It took considerable resolution to break away from the pleasant society at the boarding-house and trudge the long miles to the yawl carrying a heavy pack. But they summoned up courage, and with a pleasant good-bye and a grateful “Come again” ringing in their ears, they once more started out on their adventures.

At the end of three days they were back again, Kenneth to receive his money order, which was due by that time, and the mate to help carry more supplies. That night they told more thrilling tales and took part in a candy-pull. The next day Arthur had to return alone. Kenneth’s money order had not come, so he had to wait for it.

“Why didn’t I work the money order racket?” said Arthur, as he reluctantly shouldered his pack. “Ransom’s in luck this time.”

For a week Kenneth waited for word from home; then he began to get nervous; he did not know if all was well or not. Letters came for the other boys, but none for him. He got more than nervous; he became absolutely anxious. Moreover, he wanted to get under way again. The little town of Commerce, with its 1,600 people, he had explored thoroughly; made excursions into the woods and had some good shooting; but in spite of unaccustomed pleasures he was restless. He wanted to be moving down the river again. Whether it was the lack of news from home or some other cause, he could not tell, but he had a foreboding of some impending disaster. At the end of the sixth day of his stay in the little Missouri town Frank appeared. An anxious look was on his face.

“My! I’m glad to see you, Ken,” said he. “We wondered what had become of you, so I traipsed over to see.”

Kenneth explained the difficulty. “Everything all right aboard the ‘Gazelle’?” he asked.

“Well, no,” Frank said reluctantly. “When are you coming back?”

“To-morrow, I hope. But what’s the matter aboard?” Kenneth remembered his forebodings. “Don’t keep me waiting; what is it?”

“The fact is, Arthur’s sick, and neither Clyde nor I know what to do for him.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

“I don’t know. He has a bad cold and some fever, I guess, and he seems kinder flighty.” Frank began to reveal his anxiety. “When he showed up the other day after walking from here he talked sort of queer about the game you played on him, the girls you met, and about a feather bed—got ’em all mixed up. Had a terrible cough, too. He’s in bed now.”

“I wish I could go back with you, but I will have to wait for that money—I need it.”

Frank returned alone after taking a good rest, and Ransom waited for news from home.

Late in the afternoon of the next day it came. Cheerful, helpful letters from the dear ones in Michigan. The money order came too.

Kenneth bought his supplies, and, after bidding his friends good-bye, started out on the long journey. During his stay in Commerce the weather had softened, the frost had come out of the ground, and thick, sticky mud made walking difficult. The boy stepped out in lively fashion, in spite of the eighty-five pound pack he carried and the heavy rubber boots he wore. He forgot the weight and discomfort in his anxiety to get to the yacht and the sick friend aboard of her.

It was four o’clock when he started, and he had not been on his way much over an hour before the darkness fell, and he had to pick his way warily. Of necessity he moved slowly, and the pack grew heavier with every stride. The sticky mud held on to his rubber boots so that his heels slipped up and down inside until they began to chafe and grow tender. An hour later he was still walking—more and more slowly under the weight of the pack, which seemed to have acquired the weight of a house. Blisters had formed on his heels and were rapidly wearing off to raw flesh.

When he hailed the “Gazelle” at seven o’clock, after three hours of most agonizing trudging, he was very nearly exhausted and his heels were bleeding. The absolute necessity of reaching Arthur soon and of applying the little knowledge he had of medicines, had kept him from going under, and had given him courage to go on his way.

“Thank God, you’ve come!” was Clyde’s greeting when he came to ferry Kenneth over.

“How’s Arthur?” was the skipper’s first inquiry.

“Crazy; clean crazy, and awful sick.” Clyde was clearly greatly worried.

“Oh! I guess he’ll come out all right.” Ransom saw that it was his play to put on a cheerful front and conceal the anxiety, the physical weariness and pain he felt. “You can’t kill a Morrow, you know.”

They stepped aboard, and the first thing the captain heard was his friend’s incoherent muttering.

Arthur lay tossing on his bunk in the chilly, musty cabin, half clothed and in very evident discomfort. His eyes were open, and it cut Kenneth to the quick to see that there was not a sign of recognition in them.

All weariness and pain were forgotten in the work which followed to make the sick boy more comfortable. Hot soups were prepared and fed to him. Ransom had luckily provided a medicine chest for just such an emergency, and now he drew on its resources wisely.

It was midnight before Arthur was quieted and asleep. During the entire evening the three boys were as busy as they could be, cooking, heating water, cleaning up and setting things to rights. Then only could a council be held and the situation discussed in all its bearings.

“Well, Doc,” said Frank, smiling wanly, “what do you think is the matter with Art?”

“I wish I was an M. D.” No wish was more fervently spoken. “Oh! Arthur has a bad cold, I think,” Ransom began his diagnosis, “and his nerves are used up. Too much ice pounding and threatening, and not enough sleep.”

“What shall we do?” Clyde asked. “These are pretty small quarters to care for a sick man.”

“We’ll spoil his rest cluttering round,” suggested Frank.

“Well, I think that if we put him ashore in a hospital he would miss us and the familiar things around; he would have nothing to think of but himself, and he would worry himself worse,” Kenneth expressed his convictions with emphasis.

“But he would get better care,” Frank objected.

“Oh, I think we can look out for him all right,” the skipper interposed, “and I honestly believe that if he came to himself in a hospital with strange people round, nurses and things, he would think that he was terribly sick, and the thought of it might really do him up. If we keep him aboard—and I promise you that I will nurse him with all-fired care—(Kenneth spoke so earnestly that his friends were touched and reached forth hands of fellowship)—I think that when he comes to and finds himself with us and on the old ‘Gazelle,’ he will pull himself together in great shape and brace up. As long as Arthur has his nerve with him, he’s all right. We have had a tough time of it, and he has lost his grip a bit; but I am dead sure that if we stick by him he will pull through all right.”

“It’s all right, old man,” Clyde said heartily. “We are with you. Ain’t we, Frank?”

Frank said nothing, but got up and crossing the cabin took the skipper’s right hand while Clyde took the left. The three gripped hard for a second in silence. It was a compact to stand together through the trials that they knew were coming.

It was a strange scene: the little cabin, dimly lighted by the swinging lamp; the sick boy in the corner bunk forward on the starboard side lay breathing heavily, his flushed face in deep shadow. The three boys sat on Ransom’s bunk in a row on the opposite side, the soft light shining on their anxious faces, their hands still clasped. Outside the great river rushed, and the “Gazelle” tugged at her moorings, the rudder slatted, the booms creaked against the masts and the rigging hummed an answer to each passing gust.

It was a time to try the temper of the young voyagers, and bravely they stood the test.

“Well, what’s the matter with turning in?” It was Kenneth’s voice that broke the stillness.

Not till Frank and Clyde had begun to snore had Ransom time to care for his aching heels. To pull off his boots was trying, but when he came to take off his stockings he could hardly suppress a cry of agony. The blood had clotted and stuck to the raw spot, and it felt as if he was pulling the nerves out by the roots. It was a long time before the burning pain allowed him to sleep.

At the first opportunity the voyage was continued; and it was with a feeling of relief almost amounting to hilarity that the line ashore was cast off, and the “Gazelle,” her bowsprit pointing down stream, got under way again. That treacherous place, fraught with so many perils, such weariness, pain, and anxiety, was behind them at last.

They were headed for the land of promise, the real “Sunny South.”

Even Arthur seemed to be less fretful, less exacting. Perhaps the swish of the water along the yacht’s smooth sides was soothing, or maybe the heave of the little craft as she felt the pressure of the wind, comforted the sick boy. Certainly, it had that effect on his more fortunate companions.

When the “Gazelle” flew past the mouth of the Ohio River and anchored just below, the crew felt that they were really getting there. They visited Cairo, and though they were impressed with the advantage of its superior location at the junction of the two great rivers, they were glad that they did not live in its low-lying streets.

At Columbus, Kentucky, the crew made the acquaintance of a physician and dentist, who travelled about the South in a private car. Though Kenneth felt that his diagnosis of Arthur’s case was correct, he was mighty glad to have a physician confirm it. Arthur improved slowly—too slowly. He had a genuine case of nervous prostration. At times he was delirious, and then he lived over again all the horror of the yacht’s long imprisonment in the drifting ice. The poor boy’s malady made him exasperatingly irritable and hard to please, so that the cabin of the “Gazelle” was by no means the cheery home it had been.

But the captain’s cheerful fortitude and determination to see the thing through in spite of hostile elements, scant means, sickness and utter ignorance of the stream, inspired the busy members of the crew so that they worked together in beautiful harmony.

On the afternoon of Christmas Day the “Gazelle” drew abreast the front of Columbus, Kentucky, and while Frank and Clyde went ashore for mail, Kenneth stayed aboard to look after the invalid mate and cook the Christmas dinner. As the fragrant odor of broiling game and steaming coffee rose, Kenneth thought of the far-away Michigan home; of his father, mother and relatives gathered round the ample, homely table; of the snatches of cheerful talk and gentle raillery; of the warmth and comfort and love.

“Say, Ken,” sounded a plaintive voice from the other side of the cabin, “where are the boys? What are we waiting here for? Give me a drink, will you?”

It was a painful awakening, but Ransom satisfied Arthur’s wants, soothed him, and braced himself with the determination that win he must and win he would in spite of all obstacles.




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