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CHAPTER XIV A RACE WITH A GALE
“Ken, where are you?” Frank’s voice was almost drowned by the roaring of the breakers.

It was totally dark, and though both boys strained their eyes to the utmost, not a sign could they see of the skipper, who had vanished in the twinkling of an eye—knocked out of existence, seemingly, by the swinging blow of the boom.

Again they shouted, in unison this time. Surely Kenneth must hear them, they thought, if he was still alive and above water.

“Hulloa!” The voice was startlingly near.

The two looked about quickly in the direction from which the sound came, and beheld the skipper hanging on to the end of the boom, far to leeward; his white nightgown wet and clinging to his long legs, which were waving frantically in the effort to help their owner to crawl along the boom towards the yacht. From time to time, as the yawl rolled, the clinging figure was dipped in the sea, and then as suddenly dragged out and swung about like a wet rag on the end of a stick.

For a minute Frank and Arthur stood stupefied, then the humor of the situation dawning on them they began to laugh.

This was too much for Kenneth’s patience, and he shouted wrathfully:

“Trim in that sheet and help me in, will you, you duffers? Do you think I am doing this for your amusement?”

So they hauled in the boom and the dangling captain with it, and landed him safely on deck without a scratch.

With her head turned away from the shoal, the “Gazelle” ran off into deeper water. It was a narrow escape for all hands, but especially so for Ransom, whose quickness in grasping the spar as it swung over saved his life. Soon he could laugh with the boys over his funny appearance. But he realized, as they could not, by what a narrow margin he escaped.

After rounding Cape Romain, the “Gazelle” sailed along without a mishap of any kind for a day; then the barometer indicated that there was trouble brewing—in fact, the very atmosphere had the feeling of suppressed excitement that almost always precedes a severe storm. Ransom decided that it would be wise to get into a sheltered spot, so he steered for the mouth of Cape Fear River. It was a most difficult place to get into; but once inside, the yacht was perfectly protected from any kind of storm except, perhaps, a cyclone.

No sooner had the anchor been dropped than the wind began to raise its voice from the soft whir-r-r of the summer breeze, to the shrill, high shriek of the gale.

“For once,” said the skipper, “my foresight was better than my hindsight.”

“Good work, old man. I always knew you were a wonder,” Frank laughed. “All the same I’m glad we’re inside.”

“Mate, put this man in irons. He shall live on bread and water for ten days, due punishment for insubordination and disrespect for a superior officer.” Kenneth put on a very grave and judicial air, but could not quite control a twitching of the corners of his mouth, which enlarged to a wide grin when the mate, in obedience to his command, tackled the “crew,” and in the scuffle that followed went overboard with his prisoner.

“Never mind the water, mate,” Ransom called when the two dripping boys reached the deck. “He has had enough of that, perhaps.”

For a week the “Gazelle” lay stormbound off the little town of Southport, on the Cape Fear River. In spite of the rain which fell almost continuously, the boys explored every nook and cranny of the harbor, and pushed up the shallow creeks, and examined the sand hills that protected the shipping from the onslaught of the ocean.

The Frying-pan Shoals, extending out into the ocean from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, are responsible for more wrecks than perhaps any other reef on the Atlantic coast. Kenneth got chummy with the pilots who make Southport their headquarters, and they gladly gave him much lore about the channels, beacons, and the ins and outs of the intricate passages all along the coast. The government requires every vessel above a certain tonnage to take on a pilot; or to be more correct, the vessels are required to pay the pilot’s fee whether his services are accepted or not. As the channel is very difficult, and the fee has to be paid in any case, the skippers usually turned the responsibility of navigating their vessels into port over to the pilot. The charges are rated according to the ship’s depth—the more water she draws, the more difficulty is experienced in sailing her over the bars, and the pilot’s fee is proportionately large.

One day, Kenneth and the mate rowed against the heavy wind a mile and a half to the outer bar, and then went over to the Cape Fear Light.

The keeper was inclined to be churlish at first, but as soon as Ransom began to tell him a little about the cruise, his manner changed instantly; short answers and bored expression gave way to lively interest and voluble requests for more experiences.

“I tell you, Art,” Kenneth began in an aside to the mate, “a short yarn about the cruise is worth a hundred open sesames.”

The keeper led the two boys up the winding stair of the lighthouse tower, and as they went round and round, they could hear above the ring of their feet on the iron steps the howling of the wind about the shaft. The power and majesty of it made them pause a minute to listen, and then they felt the shock of the blast, which made even that sturdy tower quiver. When the top was reached, and a clear unobstructed view could be had, the breath of the youngsters was taken away by the awful fury of the elements battling below them; even the lighthouse keeper was awed by it, and kept silence. From the beach, a little below the foot of the tower, seaward, as far as the eye could reach through the mist and spray, the ocean tossed and rolled. Great hills of water, green and angry, rose as though pushed up from below, their crests lashed into foam and then blown into vapor by the gale; wave succeeded wave, until a mighty host of waters, rank on rank, impelled by the wind, dashed themselves to foam on the ever-resisting shore.

“Oh, this is a fierce place, and no mistake.” The honest keeper’s words took much of the sublimity out of the scene for the boys. “And a terrible place for wrecks,” he continued. “The Frying-pan Shoals run out about twenty-five miles, and vessels are all the time running afoul of them.”

“And in weather like this?” Kenneth inquired.

The keeper made a significant gesture that told, without a word, the horrors of shipwreck, of the despairing efforts of the sailors to work the vessel off the lee shore when the breakers first were seen or heard; of the canvas blown to tatters, the dreadful roar and overpowering rush of the waves driving the vessel on nearer the shoal, staving the boats and washing the crew overboard; and, finally, the sickening jar and shuddering scrape of the ship on the reef. All this the boys saw as the keeper pointed to the seething waters, and to the ribs of a wrecked ship showing black against the white foam of the breakers.

Many, many places he pointed out to them where good ships rested never to sail again.

Arthur and Kenneth went back to the yacht with solemn faces and thoughtful minds, and very thankful that the “Gazelle” lay peacefully at anchor, safe.

Though the boys had many pleasant times sailing about the harbor in one of the small boats with which the place was filled—clamming, fishing, and swapping stories with the pilots—all hands were glad when the storm abated, and they were able to weigh anchor and sail out to sea. The six-sided lighthouse looked very different when the boys saw it the second time. The inlet was little troubled by the heavy rolling seas outside and reflected the tall, straight shaft of the Cape Fear Light.

The wind had fallen to a strong, steady breeze that kept the “Gazelle” going at a splendid rate, under all sail reefed once. The sea still showed the effect of the week-long storm. Great, long billows rose and fell, but the yacht coasted gaily over them with many low bows and graceful recoveries.

It was a straightaway sail to Beaufort, North Carolina, and the 120 miles across the broad curve in the land offered, in all its length, not one good harbor.

The wind held true, and gradually the seas flattened out until cruising became a pleasure. Old Ocean seemed bent on making the last sail which the boys should take on its waters as pleasant as possible. The sun sank, and all the skies lit up in honor of his departure; then deep black night succeeded, with none of the uncanny feeling of mystery which so ofttimes comes with darkness, but softly and peacefully. The boys felt that the darkness was almost caressing, like a comfortable robe thrown round them, and they looked forward to a long night’s sail with a sense of security.

The cabin lamp was lighted, and the mellow glow poured out through the hatch and dead lights; the sailing lights blinked their red and green eyes forward, warning other night prowlers of the sea. Arthur handled the tiller, while Frank and Kenneth lounged easily on either side of the cockpit. Arthur was sailing by compass, for not a sign of land could be seen—all was utterly dark, except where a sea crested near enough to catch the light from one of the lamps.

Steadily the “Gazelle” sailed on, swaying slowly to the swing of the seas, a veritable cradle motion. Kenneth and Frank felt its influence and dozed off; Arthur’s duty kept him awake, but all his resolution was required to keep up.

“THE TALL, STRAIGHT SHAFT OF THE CAPE FEAR LIGHT.”

Suddenly, out of the gloom ahead, loomed a shape, soft and formless—a huge shadow moving and bearing down on the tiny “Gazelle.”

“Great Scott!” exclaimed Arthur.

“What is it?” Kenneth woke instantly. “Put her over, quick. Hurry.”

For the first time since her journeying began, the yacht seemed to hesitate, while the great black shadow, which gradually assumed the form of a vessel, bore swiftly down on her. It seemed as if minutes had elapsed before the headsails began to flap and the yawl turned away from her impending doom. Still, the great bulk bore down on them silently, without a light showing, the swelling canvas of her sails just indicated by a lighter shade.

“Schooner, ahoy!” Ransom shouted, making a megaphone of his hands. “You’re running us down. Bear up quick!”

A lantern showed high above them on the rail of the schooner, and a woman’s shriek rang out, clear and shrill—an uncanny sound to hear at such a time. There was a creak that told of a shifted helm, and the schooner swung to port, and cleared the yacht by a few scant inches.

As the vessel slipped by, silent as a shadow, two white faces showed over the rail high above the “Gazelle.” Not a word of excuse did they utter—probably too dazed by the narrow escape to speak.

“Those people ought to be jailed,” growled Ransom in his honest indignation. “Sailing without any light.”

“Guess they learned their lesson, look!” Sure enough, there was the red gleam of the port light glancing over the waves as it was being fitted into its box.

The next afternoon the “Gazelle” sailed into Beaufort harbor, and the boys bid good-by to Old Ocean. For a thousand miles they had sailed over its rough waters in all sorts of weathers, in a boat scarcely thirty feet long. It was an achievement to be proud of. Not many boys could point to such a record.

“Oh! we are the people!” said Frank, justifiably elated. “It’s easy from now on; no more storms, no more breakers, no more broken spars.”

“Don’t you get a swelled head,” the skipper warned. “There is always a pin point ready for every bubble.”

The “Gazelle” lay at anchor off Beaufort for several days, while the boys roamed about the quaint old town. Situated just a little below Cape Hatteras, that terrible storm centre, the little city got full benefit of the stormy on-shore gales, and there were many signs of the lashings it had received. At one place on Front Street, facing seaward, were some poplar trees whose very name suggests unwavering uprightness, but these were bent in a semicircle over the houses—a humble acknowledgment of the power of the blast.

The harbor was full of small craft. Boats of every description flitted here and there, like graceful white-winged dragon-flies. Kenneth, for once in his life, saw enough boats, and he got many ideas that he hoped to turn to good account later, when he, himself, should become a full-fledged designer.

The night before the “Gazelle” spread her wings to continue her journey, the three boys were lying about on deck after supper enjoying the evening breeze. It was just about dusk, and sky and water were assuming their most beautiful opalescent tints. It was a time to encourage sentiment, and each of the boys felt a trifle of pleasant sadness as they thought of the far-off homes and the loved ones there. Off in the distance some people were singing a familiar college air. It was all so like some of the evenings the boys had spent off old St. Joe that the unfamiliar things about them changed their shapes and positions till they almost dreamed that they were indeed at home. The voices came nearer, and a trim white yacht, that carried the singers, rose out of the dusk and sped swiftly towards them. When the two boats were within a hundred yards of each other, the singers changed their tune to “Michigan, My Michigan.”

This completed the spell, and for the first time the captain and crew had a genuine case of homesickness. Neither of the three boys dared to look the other in the face.

“‘Gazelle,’ ahoy!”

The hail rang clear and sharp over the smooth water, and its suddenness woke the boys from their day dreams instantly. It was long since they had heard that hail.

“Aye—who goes there?” was the answer.

“A friend!”

“Approach, friend, and let us look at you.”

The yacht swooped round the “Gazelle’s” stern and headed up into the wind, her sails flapping. She dropped her anchor, and soon the yawl’s deck and cabin were filled with gay visitors. One of them knew some of Kenneth’s people, which acquaintance both visitors and visited considered quite sufficient.

The boys hated to weigh anchor next morning and leave the pleasant place and the friends they had just made, but the thought of the thousands of miles yet to be traversed urged them on.

“And just think of leaving those watermelons at two cents each!” The sadness in Arthur’s voice told of his sincere regret.

The first day’s sail brought the voyagers to the end of Core Sound. They were just below Hatteras and inside, but it looked as if the stormy old cape was not going to allow them to pass without giving them an experience to remember him by. The wind was rising rapidly and the massing of the heavy clouds cast a shadow over all.

“We’re in for another blow, I guess,” said the skipper, as he pulled on his sticky oilskins. “This old boat is getting tried out pretty well.”

As the “Gazelle” flew past the Royal Shoal light, the keeper and his family waving good luck, the gale was blowing its best out of the east, and, close-hauled, she flew along in a smother of foam, her lee rail awash, her sails hard as if moulded tin, her rigging taut and humming like harp strings.

Just before she reached Gull Shoal light, her gaff snapped again, and, with reduced canvas, she hurried along. Frank and Arthur lay forward to look for channel marks, and for whatever troubles might chance, while Kenneth steered. The heavy clouds shut down on them like night. The darkness seemed thick enough to cut, and not a thing could be seen but the white-capped waves that dashed madly by them. They were like a man who, being pursued, runs at full speed through a perfectly dark passage that is not familiar to him—he must run on, yet he knows not at what moment he may dash himself against a wall or trip and fall headlong. It was a time of breathless excitement and constant, unnerving fear lest the yacht, flying along at almost railroad speed, should run into one of the numerous shoals that lay spread like a net for the unwary, and dash herself to pieces.

The heavy rain obliterated every sign of a channel mark, and the thick storm clouds shut off the sun as completely as a total eclipse. Kenneth had to steer by compass only.

Frank and Arthur peered ahead, their hands raised to shield their eyes from the driving rain. A long shoal ran out into the sound, and all hands were trying to make out the lighthouse that marked it.

Ransom thought it the hardest blow he had ever known, and he wondered how long the sturdy little craft he sailed could stand the strain. The wind tugged at the canvas, tried all the stays, but, beyond the makeshift gaff, apparently, could find nothing vulnerable. It seemed as if the squall lasted hours, but when the rain finally stopped and the wind lessened in force, the boys saw the dim outlines of the lighthouse off the port bow, and they knew it could not have lasted much over two hours. As they passed the light, the keeper rang his bell in salute, and shouted his congratulations.

“It’s the worst short storm I have seen in many years,” he shouted. “You’re lucky to get through safe.”

When the mate went below to put on some dry clothes, he looked at the tin clock, and discovered that the “Gazelle” had covered the distance between the two lights—sixteen miles—in about an hour and a quarter.

At Stumpy Bay they stopped to make a new gaff, and then, after a two days’ lay off there, they went on to Coin Jock, North Carolina.

A fleet of barges, loaded with watermelons, going through the canal leading through the Dismal Swamp, to Norfolk, offered to give the boys a tow—an invitation which they hastened to accept. Not till nine o’clock did the procession start, with the “Gazelle” at the end of the long line of boats. It was a dark, lowering night, and not a thing could the boys see of the country through which they were passing. The light of the boat ahead was their only guide.

The yacht was snapped to and fro on the end of the long line of boats like the end boy on a snap-the-whip string. About midnight the rain began to come down in a perfect deluge, and the word was passed aft to each boat to anchor till things cleared.

Though the boys could see little but the jagged outlines of the trees against the stormy sky, they voted the surroundings dismal enough to merit the name.

Just before daylight, the fleet got under way again, the little “Gazelle” tagging on behind like a reluctant boy hanging on to his mother’s hand when she takes him shopping.

At Norfolk Ransom and his shipmates found a goodly company of vessels of all sorts, all rigs, and every nationality. The red-and-black storm flag was flying from every signal station along the coast, and the vessels had hastened to cover in Hampton Roads and Norfolk harbor.

Returning from the Post Office, where Kenneth and the mate found a goodly batch of precious home letters awaiting them, they had great difficulty in making headway against the gale that was already blowing. The anchorage reached, they realized anew how cosey and comfortable the “Gazelle’s” cabin was.

“Let’s have a watermelon in honor of—well—to celebrate this occasion.” It was Arthur, of course, who suggested this.

“In honor of what occasion?” Frank winked at the skipper.

“The watermelon and the fellows who gave it to us.”

So each boy, a section of pink fruit in one hand and a letter in the other, began the absorbing process of eating and reading.

The wind was playing high jinks outside, but the young tars in their snug cabin heeded it not a bit.

Not till a stream of pink melon juice squirted over the written page which he was reading, did Kenneth look up—his attention distracted. The darkness of the cabin made him look for the cause.

To port, flashes of the gray, stormy light were sifting in through the oval windows when the yacht rose to the top of a wave; then he turned to the right and looked out. A great black wall shut off every particle of light—it was as if the yacht had been built against a high board fence.

Kenneth jumped up and ran on deck.

“Look out, boys!” he shouted down the hatch after a moment. “The big schooner just to starboard of us is dragging her anchors and will be down on us in a minute.”



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