Lost Island/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V
IN WHICH THE PACIFIC QUEEN LOSES A PRIZE

"A derelict," Dave said, not quite sure what a derelict was. "Does n't that mean a—"

"A derelict, my son," said Barnes, "is the sort of thing a cap'n spends all his life lookin' for, but most generally he does n't find it; and even when he finds it, it might be lucky and it might be powerful unlucky. If the old man has a hoodoo, he 'll either find the derelict in the dark by punching bow on into it, or the derelict won't be worth the trouble of takin' to port. But if the skipper who runs across it is one of them people that can't go wrong, he 'll be able to tow the thing into port and live happy ever after on what he gets out of the salvage."

Dave, consumed with curiosity, held out his hand for the glasses.

"Away, child, away," commanded the cook with his eyes still glued to them. "Here is work for men, not infants. A two-thousand-ton steamer, as I live. We 'll all have rings on our fingers and bells on our toes after this, for the cap'n doesn't get all the salvage money. I dunno what share the cook gets, eggsactly, but it ought to be about half, I reckon. You 'll pick up a few hundred dollars too, kid, maybe, though I'm sure you don't deserve it. Here, take a squint through these binoculars; though you don't deserve that, either."

Dave, rapidly growing more excited as they ran nearer the vessel, tried to discern some sign of life on board her, but could not. He did not understand quite what the cook meant about salvage, though it sounded good.

The engine-room telegraph rang, and the Pacific Queen slowed down. The order came from the bridge for a boat to be swung out. Mr. Quick, hustling a crew into her, took charge and put off to the other vessel. Everybody waited impatiently for their return. The ship bobbing up and down, a hundred yards away, had evidently encountered trouble of some sort. Her bows were dangerously low in the water, as if the forward compartments were flooded, and there was a list which made one think she was going to topple over any minute. A number of plates were stove in, showing she had hit something with tremendous force.

The boarding party remained away half an hour, and on his return the chief mate reported that the vessel was the Miriam, of Boston, apparently laden with a general cargo. She was deserted and sinking. The forward hold and engine-room were full of water, and he thought that only the bulkheads holding out were saving her. Once the pressure of water broke those down, she would sink.

"She's been worth a power of money, Mr, Quick," commented Captain Chisholm, "to say nothing of the cargo in her. I guess I 'll just slip over myself and see what sort of a chance there is of doing anything with her. She's been in collision during a gale, and the boat that hit her probably took the men off. We 're within twenty-four hours' run of Charleston. A salvage job like this would just tickle me to death. If it can possibly be done, Mr. Mate, I 'm going to try it."

The captain's inspection of the derelict was not so lengthy.

"There's a sporting chance of getting her into dock," he announced as he climbed back onto the Pacific Queen, "but there is n't a minute to lose. We must get the pumps to work immediately. It will be tricky work, because she may sink like a stone when she does go. Now, Mr. Quick, get that new manila hawser bent on to her, and look alive there. You 'll want a dozen men on her. Better take only volunteers, as it's risky."

Volunteers were ready enough. Dave moved forward to join them, but Barnes pulled him back by the ear.

"That's work for men, not babies, did n't I tell you?" he said. "Besides, who d'you s'pose is going to wash the dishes on this packet if you go and get drownded? It's no use me askin' the cap'n to do it, and I'm sure I won't. Yon is a death-trap, lad. It's a desperate chance to make big money, and, mark my words, they 'll hang on to the last minute. We 'll get our share of the salvage money just the same, so stop where you are. Blow you, anyway; you 're more trouble than you 're worth!"

In the next few minutes Dave learnt what real hustling at sea was.

Mr. Quick knew the art of driving men in an emergency, and in an incredibly short time the derelict was pulling heavily behind the Pacific Queen at the end of the long hawser, and looking strangely awkward with her heavy list. Mr. Quick's task was a formidable one, but he set about it with grim determination, for the prize was one well worth having. There was a ground swell running, but no water was coming inboard; so after having hand pumps rigged up and setting four men to work at top speed on these, he had the hatches ripped off. As he had surmised, the cargo had shifted badly, and that was what made her lean over so perilously. Bales, boxes, and merchandise of all kinds were lying in indescribable confusion, and it was a Herculean task to get the hold anything like ship-shape without the aid of steam-winches. Mr. Quick, however, threw off his coat and worked as hard as any of the men. The derelict was not in imminent danger of turning turtle so long as the sea did not grow worse, but there was always the danger of a strong wind getting up suddenly.

With aching backs, fingers lacerated by frenzied tugging at the jumbled cargo, and perspiration pouring off them, the men toiled at their task without a break all day, and Mr. Quick did not call them off until there was an appreciable difference in the way the boat was riding in the water. The men at the pumps, however, worked in vain. Thousands of gallons of water gushed out of the hold forward without raising the bow an inch in the sea. It was evident that a hole of considerable size must have been torn in the side of the vessel, through which the water rushed as fast as the overtaxed muscles of the seamen pumped it out.

Everybody on the Pacific Queen was agog with excitement, casting many an anxious glance back at the precious prize.

"Quick ain't giving them men a picnic; no, sir!" Barnes said to Dave. "They 'll be 'most dead by the time we get to port. That mate hasn't had a proper chance to let off steam in months, and my name is n't Bill Barnes if he does n't enjoy it more 'n a big-league baseball game. That man ain't got no heart. He's just made up of vinegar and guncotton."

It was true that Mr. Quick was getting the last ounce out of the men, and the pumping went on incessantly. There was always the bare chance that they were lightening the derelict a trifle, and the mate did not like to think of the tremendous strain those bulkheads were standing. Every hour, though, brought them miles nearer Charleston.

When night had fallen Barnes stood at the stern of the Pacific Queen, surveying the lurching light which alone showed that the stricken craft was still above water.

"This is where I quit cookin' pudding's for a bunch of sailors," he said to Dave. "It's more 'n I ever hoped for to come my way, is pickin' up two hundred feet or so of a steamer without even a canary on board. D' you know what I'm going to do with my share, kid? I'm going to found a home for tired sea-cooks. Yes, sir. That's what I'm going to do. There's going to be free grub and things, and no man in there will do a stroke of work. Maybe there 'll be a steward engaged. Yes, sir, I 've got his duties figgered out right now. When a tired sea-cook is reclinin' at his ease, with a good cargo of roast beef stowed aboard, running his mind over the days when he had the life plagued out of him afloat, that steward 'll knock at the door soft-like and say it's time the crowds dinner was ready. Yes, sir. There 'll only be one man in that home for tired sea-cooks, and that's me. And do you know what I 'll say to the steward? I 'll tell him to tell the crew to go to Jericho.

"Laugh, you little lubber," he added, glaring at Dave, "or I 'll drop you overboard. What are you going to do with your share, Dave?"

The boy thought for a moment.

"I 'll pay some one to write a book teaching manners to sea-cooks," he said, side-stepping just in time to avoid Barnes's hand.

The coming of darkness had not improved the position. There was an atmosphere of grave anxiety on the Pacific Queen, for it needed no very experienced eye to judge that the Miriam's chances were, to say the least, slim; and none knew better than Mr. Quick how insecure was the position of the men under him.

Dave slept fitfully, dreaming he was the skipper of a steamer that encountered a whole fleet of derelicts. He had them all tied astern, like a string of barges, reaching for miles. Then his chief engineer came up to report that there was no more coal left on board, and Captain David Hallard was struggling desperately with the problem of what to do, when he awoke.

Through a porthole he saw that the first signs of dawn were visible in the eastern sky. Dressing hastily, he went on deck.

Oleson and one or two other sailors were hovering round the stern, discussing the Miriam's chances of keeping afloat.

"She 'll just about make Charleston," one man said, "but she would n't get much farther."

"I never expected to find her above water this morning," commented another, gloomily.

"Leave that to Quick," said the first sailor. "He knows what he's doing. There 'll be a scramble for that dory they 're trailing astern, though, if she does sink!"

The light was growing rapidly, and Dave could now make out the form of the chief mate. The creak and thud of the pumps came faintly across the heaving water.

Mr. Quick, as a matter of fact, was ill at ease. He had been standing for some time over the flooded hold, listening, and fearing to hear a repetition of an ominous sound—a dull groaning that seemed to come from somewhere underneath him. Using his arms as a semaphore, he sent a signal to Captain Chisholm, who had been restlessly pacing the bridge.

"Afraid bulkheads giving way," he signaled. "No lower yet, but stand by ready to let go hawser if necessary!"

The captain frowned as he read the message. It was maddening to have such valuable salvage snatched away when they were getting so near to port. But he was responsible for the lives of the men.

"Don't take chances," he signaled back. "Have dory ready."

Mr. Quick smiled grimly, but no one on the Pacific Queen saw that smile. It was not a pleasant sight. He was willing to run the same risk of being drowned as the men, but as chief mate he would draw a large proportion of the salvage money, and for the present he had no intention of giving the order which would send the men into the dory.

Every now and again he went to the side of the ship to see if she had settled farther. He was perfectly aware that the noise he had heard indicated something sinister was happening down in the flooded interior of the ship and that the derelict's chances now hung on a single thread. But while that thread held there was a hope of big salvage money.

An hour passed—two hours. Mr. Quick, with every nerve strained to breaking point, felt a peculiar motion of the derelict, and the deck vibrated slightly. Though hard and cruel, he was brave. Very quietly, and still puffing at the stump of a cigar which he had nearly bitten through, he peered again over the side.

For three minutes he remained in that position, staring intently at the water.

Oleson, on the Pacific Queen, took the glasses from Dave's hand.

"She's a full foot lower," he said jerkily. "I 'll be veree surprised if she keeps up another hour."

Suddenly the cries of alarmed men on the Miriam were heard. A crashing, rumbling noise from under the decks had told them the end had come.

Like a tired thing, the derelict lurched heavily, and before the men on board had time to get half way to the dory, the doomed steamer's bows were in the sea. She canted over, making progress along the deck difficult. Only eight of the crew, besides the mate, had dropped into the small boat, when the stern of the derelict began to rise as her bows went farther downward. To have delayed another second would have meant death for all. With his own hands Mr. Quick cast the painter when the dory was tilted at a perilous angle, and even as the piteous cries of the four men left on board were ringing in their ears, the sailors in the dory bent desperately to their oars in order to avoid the whirlpool which the sinking ship would create on her plunge to the bottom.

Though the muscles in their backs and arms cracked under the strain, the men did not succeed in getting far enough away to avoid the eddy.

The instant he noticed what was happening, Captain Chisholm stopped the engines of the Pacific Queen.

"Let go that hawser," came the order from the bridge. "Get another boat out quick. Be smart there."

Like lightning the men obeyed. The loss of their prize was forgotten for the moment, for human lives were in peril. There was no time to pick and choose who was to man the second dory. Those near at hand jumped in, Dave among them. Just as they pushed off from the side of the Pacific Queen the little craft containing Mr. Quick and eight men was caught by the outside of the whirlpool and began to spin round.

"Easy with your oars, lads," said the bo'sun in charge of the second dory. "We must keep out of that."

The irresistible suction drew the mate's boat nearer and nearer that swirling centre of the whirlpool in rapidly narrowing circles. The men in her were now struggling frantically against overwhelming odds. It seemed as though nothing could possibly save them from being drawn under, to be shot far down in the track of the Miriam.

Dave gripped the gunwale of the boat tightly. He wanted to close his eyes to shut out the impending tragedy. He forgot the mate's brutality. It was agonizing to have to sit still and do nothing while his shipmates were on the verge of death.