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CHAPTER IX ON SALT WATER AT LAST
“Hurrah for the sea; the blue, salt sea; the sea that we strove to reach!” shouted Kenneth at the top of his voice.

“Hurrah!” shouted the other two boys, and all three clasped hands and danced about in glee.

“Isn’t this worth working for?” inquired the captain, as he swept his hand round, tracing the horizon line.

Off in the distance lay the Bird Islands, and still further the Breton Islands showed faint and hazy in the fast deepening dusk. The wind was a mere caressing zephyr, and the sea rolled in good-naturedly, soothingly, even.

“What’s the matter with this, boys? Let’s anchor here. Heave the lead, Frank, and see if it’s all right.”

Frank reached under the cockpit seat and took from its rack the lead and line. “Aye, aye, sir,” he answered, in mock servility. Hooking his left arm round the port stays, he stood on the rail, the long strip of lead dangling from his right hand; the left hand held the coil of line. For a minute he stood poised there while the “Gazelle” curtseyed her acknowledgments to the long swells, a picturesque figure silhouetted against the warm glow of the setting sun. Then he began to swing his right arm slowly and steadily, the lead just clearing the water. When it was swinging well forward he let it go, and as the line slipped through his fingers he watched for the bits of colored cloth that indicated the depth. Down, down it went, until all but the leather strips had disappeared in the water. Then the line slackened, and the leadsman knew that bottom had been reached. Beginning to pull in the line Frank shouted, “Three fathoms!”

“Stand by! Let go your anchor!” ordered Kenneth, as soon as Frank had reeled in the lead-line.

“Let her go!”

There was a splash, then a hum and swish of heavy rope as the anchor cable whipped through the chocks.

“Let go your mizzen halliards!” The creak of the blocks told that the order had been obeyed. Arthur let the jigger go at the same time. For a few minutes not a word was spoken—all the mouths were full of cotton rope—“stops”—while the hands were busy tightly rolling the sails. The jib was furled up at last, and not till the anchor light was set glowing, hung from the triced-up jib four or five feet above the deck, did the four boys have time to lay off and enjoy the situation. They were surprised to see how dark it was. Only a minute ago it seemed that the sky was alight and full of color; but now only a faint soft glow remained as a reminder that they were near the tropics where the sun drops out of sight while still glowing.

Arthur and Kenneth lay on their backs on the cabin roof, while Frank went below to get supper. Both boys murmured their content. They were a little tired, for the navigation of Cubit’s Gap had been a strain on the nerves and had necessitated more or less violent exertion. The air was warm and restful; the motion of the boat was like the easy rocking of a cradle, the most delightful motion on earth; the stars were just beginning to show themselves, and the mast of the boat seemed to point them out one by one as she swung to and fro. Suddenly there was a slight splash alongside and a long-drawn, vociferous sigh.

“What was that?” Arthur said, sitting up quickly, with a startled look on his face.

“I don’t know,” Ransom confessed, rubbing his eyes; “queer, wasn’t it?”

Frank’s clatter as he made ready the supper were the only sounds.

“Listen!”

Again the long sigh. It seemed to come from the very heart of some one in intense pain.

Both boys jumped up, and Arthur called softly to Frank to come on deck. Then all three leaned over the side, looking eagerly for the soul in torment. They half expected to see a white upturned face showing against the dark water. Again the sound of escaping breath. The boys looked in the direction from whence it came and saw, not the white face of a drowning woman, nor anything else of a like romantic nature, but the black, glistening hide of a huge porpoise, as it leisurely humped its back and disappeared below the surface.

“Phew! but that scared me,” remarked Arthur. “Thought somebody was in trouble, sure.”

“The laugh is on us, all right,” Kenneth said; but he shivered slightly in remembrance of the strange sound. “How’s supper, Frank? I’m hungry enough to eat half that porpoise.”

It was a merry party that sat down to the meal of oysters, which had been given to them by their fishermen friends; spuds, as the boys called the potatoes; coffee, bread, without butter, and a treasured pie, rather the worse for wear, but keenly relished for all that. What was left of the meal would not have satisfied a bird, and the dishwashing that night was an easy job.

All three of the boys felt that their fun was really only just beginning. The cruise down the Mississippi seemed like a nightmare as they looked back upon it. Cold, unending exertion, sickness and imminent danger, coupled with a necessity for great economy, had taken all the zest out of the enjoyment they might have had.

Something has been said about Ransom’s financial condition; the same thing was true of the other boys. Clyde and Arthur hoped and expected to make some money along the way to help pay expenses, as did Kenneth and Frank; but fortune was against them and they had to get along as best they could on the small sums they possessed. From St. Louis to New Orleans, taking in all expenses, including extra oil needed to keep from freezing, medicines and extra nourishing food for the invalid Arthur, the total cost per week per boy was a dollar and a half.

FISH THEY CAUGHT IN THE GULF OF MEXICO.

It was no wonder, then, that the three thought that a happier time was coming. Smiling, sunny skies above them, clear, buoyant, salt water under them, a tried and true ship their home, and a ship’s company that could be absolutely relied upon. What more was to be desired?

The night was divided into four watches of four hours each, and Kenneth went on deck to take the first trick from eight to twelve.

And so the young fresh-water sailors passed the first night on the briny deep. A peaceful, restful, invigorating night, that marked the beginning of a new series of experiences.

Arthur went on at midnight (eight bells), and Frank, in turn, relieved Arthur at four o’clock (eight bells of the morning watch). It was Frank, then, who put his head into the after hatch and roused “all hands” at six o’clock, which Arthur and Kenneth called an unholy hour.

“I wonder if there are any sharks around?” said Arthur, as he stood on the dew-wet deck looking overboard. “Gee! that water looks tempting. Here goes!” Almost with a single sweep of his hands he had pulled off his duck jumper and trousers, and the last words ended in a gurgle as he hit the water.

“Beat you in,” was Frank’s only comment to Kenneth, who came on deck that minute. It was a dead heat. As for sharks, the thought of them did not enter the heads of the three boys, as they ducked and dove, splashed and swam, shouted and squealed, with pure delight. It would have upset the equilibrium of any self-respecting shark; at any rate, none made their appearance that day.

It was a very airy costume that the crew wore that morning while they scrubbed down decks, coiled down tackle, cleaned out “His Nibs,” and put the little ship to rights generally.

Kenneth and Arthur got the “Gazelle” under way, while Frank went below to get breakfast. The course was shaped for Biloxi, Mississippi, and the yacht settled down to the two days’ run. The wind was fair and true, and the yacht, spreading out her wings, sped between the many islands that dotted the waters, and picked her way through the intricate channels daintily. They anchored off Barrell Key that night, and made the acquaintance of two fishermen—Austrians—whose lugger was anchored close by. The boys accepted their invitation to fish with them next morning, and while they did little more than contribute considerable looking on, they got a good mess of fish. These Frank speedily turned into an appetizing breakfast, the incense from which was still rising when the boys bid their fishermen friends good-by. In a very short time the mast of the lugger had dwindled to a matchstick, and the swift, rakish little hull disappeared below the horizon.

It was just dark enough to make it difficult to distinguish the channel marks when they reached Biloxi Harbor, but the “mud hook” was dropped in a safe place, and Frank and Kenneth went ashore to look for mail and to telegraph home the news of their safe arrival. They had been unable to send word for the better part of a week, and the loss last year, about the same time, of the “Paul Jones,” a large launch, in the waters through which the “Gazelle” had navigated so serenely, would, the boys knew, make their parents dread this part of the cruise. It was partly a feeling of triumph, partly a desire to relieve anxiety, that Kenneth experienced when he hurried to wire home.

The teredo, that terrible little insect that turns the bottoms of vessels into sieves, and undermines the woodwork of wharves in Southern waters, was very much on the mind (metaphorically, of course) of the young captain. He had no desire to feed the staunch “Gazelle” to the voracious little borer. Many times he had been warned to copper paint the bottom of the yacht, and, though he dreaded the job, the sooner it was done the better. A sloping sand beach lay to one side of Biloxi, and onto this the “Gazelle” was hauled at high tide, her ballast unloaded, and as the water fell she careened to one side. The starboard side was exposed first, and to the delight and satisfaction of Kenneth and his friends, there was hardly a scratch in the clear, hard wood. All hands immediately fell to work scraping off the marine growth that had formed. It was a three hours’ job, but when it was finished the boys felt so virtuous that satisfaction stuck out like the paint on their faces. “Pride cometh before a fall,” but the oyster shell cut which Kenneth’s foot received, seemed to him a fall entirely out of proportion to the pride.

Invincible to the terrible teredo, the “Gazelle” sailed out of Biloxi Harbor bound for Mobile. She reached her destination the same day, just as the sunset gun of Fort Morgan boomed out, and the Stars and Stripes came fluttering down its staff.

The “Gazelle’s” ensign came down at the same instant. “You see, we are recognized,” Kenneth remarked airily, as he waved his hand in the direction of the cloud of gunpowder smoke that still hovered over the muzzle of the old smooth-bore.

There was some discussion as to who should go ashore and inspect the fort—the grassy slope that led up to the massive, red-gray pile was very inviting—but eventually the strands of rope yarn decided for them that Kenneth should not go. Whereupon he declared that he ought not to walk on his injured foot, any way. After rowing close in to the grassy ramparts of the fortress, Frank and Arthur decided that they did not care to visit it either. Whether Uncle Sam’s soldier, who paced along close to the water and carried a gun, had anything to do with their sudden change of plan, is not for the writer to say, but Ransom noticed that the two would-be visitors seemed to be disinclined to talk about the matter.

The fishing was so good in Mobile Bay that the boys could literally stand at their hearthstone (if a boat can be said to have a hearthstone—galley hatch would be more correct), and catch their breakfast. If they could have been satisfied to live on fish alone, life would have been too easy.

“We will grow scales if we eat much more fish,” said Kenneth, the last day of their stay in Mobile Bay.

“That’s a good scheme,” enthused Arthur (he of the fertile imagination). “Then we could make no end of money exhibiting ourselves as the only original mermen.”

Notwithstanding the possibilities of this enterprise, the three boys laid in a goodly supply of plain shore bread, potatoes, even a pickle or two, and filled the water breakers with fresh water—it would be two days before the next town could be reached.

Bright and early, Arthur, who had the morning watch, called all hands, and weighing anchor the “Gazelle’s” bowsprit was turned seaward. The long sand bar leading out from Mobile harbor was marked at its outer end by a whistling buoy, that sped the parting guest most mournfully and welcomed the coming one with a dirge. The wave-driven billows produced a most melancholy whistle, and the boys were glad when they had turned to port and were beyond the sound of it.

Fickle fortune smiled on these hard-used voyagers at last. Blue skies overhead, the clear waters below, a delicate light green that reflected into the white sails, or a deep verdant color that was restful to the eye, and showed off to advantage the tints of the jewel-like fish that swam in its depths. The warm sun—too warm at times—was a joy after the long sunless days on the Mississippi, though it tanned their skins the color of the cherry-finished cabin.

Two days out from Mobile they were sailing along in a light breeze, almost dead aft. Frank held the tiller and was having little to do; Kenneth lay on his stomach in the cockpit, studying the chart, with its multiplicity of figures showing depths of water; Arthur was below putting a very conspicuous background into a pair of his duck trousers.

“How’s the weather up there, old man?” Arthur shouted to Frank.

“All right, all right!” came the answer, drowsily. “Not much wind, but hotter than blazes.”

“But there’s going to be trouble, all the same—‘glass’ shows it.”

Kenneth came tumbling down to see, and, sure enough, the barometer was falling fast. It did not seem possible that a storm could be coming. The air was bright and clear, the long, easy swells suggested nothing but good treatment, and the breeze was almost caressing in its softness. But it was the calm before the storm. Presently the warmth began to go out of the air, and a chilliness that made the boys shiver crept into it. A darkening came up in the southwest which gradually deepened and spread until the whole heavens were deep blue-black, against which the scudding clouds showed white and ominous. From time to time the boys heard a distant rumbling, and streaks of zigzag lightning flashed across the gloom. It was the first time the “Gazelle” and her crew had encountered a blow on the salt water, and they looked to the shore for a shelter. Vicious little blasts—advance pickets of the squall—blew sharply across the sea, and picked up little puffs of spray which instantly disappeared in vapor; the “Gazelle” trembled under these slaps of wind like a spirited horse under the touch of a nervous driver.

The shore was without a vestige of shelter, and there was nothing to do but to ride it out.

Kenneth took the tiller, while Arthur and Frank made haste to reef down. The mainsail was lowered altogether and furled, the jib was reefed twice, and the jigger hauled inboard and reefed also. “His Nibs” was hauled aboard and lashed down tight. Oilskin coats and sou’westers were “broken out” of the lockers, and the hatches were shut tight and battened down. The boat would have to do the rest to bring them through safely, and all had confidence that she would be perfectly able to do so.

These preparations were made none too soon. In an instant the sharp little puffs of wind gave way to a whooping gale that picked up the sea and the yacht alike, and swept them like chaff before it along shore. Then came the rain—a deluge, a cataract, that shut down on everything like night. The sea rose up about them like moving hills, the wind buffeted them so that the yacht jarred with the blows, and the rain closed in on them, a watery stockade. It drenched the crew crouched in the cockpit through and through, and dashed into their faces a thousand stinging darts.

The squall lasted for an hour without a let up. The “Gazelle” rode the waves beautifully, and took the buffetings of wind and rain like the sturdy craft she was, without a murmur. The sharp flashes of lightning gave Kenneth momentary glimpses of the shore, by which he managed to steer. Otherwise they were going it blind.

At length they noticed that the volleys of thunder seemed less near and the lightning less frequent and the onslaught of the rain darts not so sharp. The squall began to die down as quickly as it rose; astern, a faint light showed, while ahead the gloom was as deep as before. The rain grew less and less, and then passed entirely, the sun cleared his brow and shone down amiably through a blue sky, the wind calmed to a steady breeze, rain-washed and cool. Only the troubled sea remained as a reminder of the tempest.

Frank got up and shook himself. “I wish we had a wringer aboard,” he said. “I’d like to put myself through it. Ugh! I’m wet.”

As the sun dropped into the sea the “Gazelle” ran over the bar and anchored just inside of Pensacola Harbor. The ebb tide prevented them from going up to the town.

The shelter was slight, and the sharp squall of the afternoon raised the sea to an uncomfortable degree of motion. The “Gazelle” tossed and rolled, not having the steadying advantage of spread canvas. The boys were glad enough when the sun rose and the tide allowed them to sail up to a sheltered anchorage off the city itself.

The thing about the city of Pensacola that seemed principally to attract the boys’ interest was a large ice-manufacturing plant, the manager of which presented them with a sizable cake. This to boys who had been drinking luke-warm, rather brackish water, was a real boon.

After leaving Pensacola Harbor they turned to port, and found anchored just round the bar a fleet of vessels flying the yellow quarantine flag; but the “Gazelle,” having a clean bill of health, gave them a wide berth and sped on.

The rather intricate passage into Santa Rosa Sound was run without mishap, and then began one of the most delightful day’s sail of the cruise.

They passed a strip of sand hills twenty miles long, for the most part covered with tall, waving grass, live oaks and palms, but showing glimpses here and there of the white gleaming sand. The main land along the Sound is a government reservation, and is thickly planted with live oaks, forming a solid wall of green almost twenty miles long—a hedge, as it were, with irregular top, showing where some ambitious tree has grown above its fellows. Between is a strip of water five miles wide, smooth and clear, light green in its shallows, shading into the deep blue that marked the channel.

Along this path of beauty flew the “Gazelle,” her white sides and sails gleaming against the tinted water.

A fleet of fishing boats were sailing ahead when the “Gazelle” entered the Sound, their graceful shapes skimming over the water.

Kenneth stood up in his place at the helm and looked at them. “The ‘Gazelle’ has proved herself seaworthy,” he said, rather proudly. “I bet she can beat that bunch of boats ahead.”

There were no takers, but all hands watched the gap of water between the yacht and hindmost craft eagerly. The wind was astern, and with her sheets well out, the yawl flew after the fishing fleet. For an hour there was little change in the relative positions of the pursuer and the pursued; then the boys noticed that the distance was lessening. On they flew up the broad, ribbon-like channel, until they were almost able to read the names on the sterns of the working boats.

“We’re not so slow,” Kenneth cried, as the “Gazelle” drew alongside, his eyes shining with pleasure.

“Adios,” shouted a swarthy man standing in the stern sheets of a lugger. “Fine boat, yours; you want swap?” A set of white teeth shone as he smiled sunnily.

The three boys took off their caps and waved a salute. “No, thank you; we’re bound up the Atlantic coast, need deep draft boat,” Kenneth answered.

“Atlantic, that boat? no!” the other said, half to himself; and the last the boys saw of him he was still shaking his head emphatically.

“Doesn’t know the boat, does he, boys?” Kenneth laughed.

The fishing fleet was soon left behind, and the “Gazelle” was once more sailing alone. The sun began to sink lower and lower, gaining depth of color as it dropped, until the whole narrow path of water blazed and sparkled with opalescent tints. The boys were almost intoxicated with the delight of it, and did not notice how abruptly the sound was narrowing down. The sunset’s glory was short-lived, and the crew found themselves in an intricate, crooked channel, utterly strange to them. They had almost decided to anchor, when they noticed a large schooner, a mere shadow, gliding ahead of them.

“We’ll follow her wake,” declared Kenneth. “She knows the channel if we don’t.”

Like hounds on the trail they followed the schooner through the deepening dusk, until the flapping of canvas told them that she had come into the wind, and the clank of chain cable through the hawse pipes betrayed the fact that she had anchored.

Bright and early the next morning the rollicking three were overboard taking an awakening bath. After bidding their guides of the night before good-by, they began to pick their way among the bars and coral rocks to the open Gulf. It was trying, careful work, requiring constant watchfulness, frequent sounding and much tacking to and fro; but the “Gazelle” was riding the long swells of the open sea by eight o’clock. A long sail was ahead of them, and they hoped to make the distance to St. Joseph’s Bay by nightfall, a run of about eighty miles. But alas! the wind forsook them, and hour after hour they rolled on the long, oily swells under the brazen sun.

“I am tired of loafing around. I am going to do something.” Arthur got up from his place on the deck aft and looked round for a suggestion.

Frank and Kenneth started at this sudden display of energy.

“What are you going to do?” Kenneth asked.

“Fish,” was Arthur’s laconic answer, as he caught sight of a stout line with a big hook bent on it.

“Going to catch minnows?” Frank suggested facetiously.

“No, whales.”

Arthur went below and dug out of the locker the end of a piece of pork, then dropping the tackle and bait into “His Nibs,” he pushed off.

Kenneth roused himself. “Say, Arthur,” he called, “better fish from the yacht; we might catch a breeze and leave you.”

“Oh, go away,” the mate answered. “There isn’t a breeze within two hundred miles of here.”

Arthur rowed off a hundred yards or so, baited his hook and dropped it overboard.

“Well, if he isn’t the greatest freak,” Frank remarked lazily.

For some time the two boys on the yacht watched him, then, as nothing happened, they moved their gaze and half dozed in the warm, salt air.

Of a sudden there was a cry and a thump as of wood against wood. They looked quickly, and saw Arthur hanging on to the line, which stretched out before him tight as a harp string. The boat was rocking dangerously, and the oars banged together.

“What’s the matter?” both boys shouted.

“I have caught something,” was the answer.

He certainly had caught something; and the “something” was carrying him rapidly away from the “Gazelle” out to sea.


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