Lost Island/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII
THE WRECKING OF THE KINGFISHER

As soon as the Pacific Queen was moored at Auckland, Barnes saw that Dave got most of the money due to him as wages, urging that he had not enough clothes to keep him warm. Barnes did not like to lose the lad, but he had youngsters of his own, and he knew Dave had been submitted to more unkindness than necessary at the hands of the mate.

"Good-bye, kid," he said, wiping his greasy hand to shake that of the boy. "Heaven knows it 'll be a stroke of bad luck for any ship's cook that gets you to help him. I'm glad to be rid of you. But remember what I 've told you. Don't jump aboard any old tub. You 're a smart enough youngster except for your lack of brains and your impidence, and you know how to take care of yourself a bit better now, but ships is n't all as comfortable as the Pacific Queen. I expect I 'll be bumping up against you again somewhere or other. Don't sign on to any craft where the crew speak an un-Christian lingo, or they might flay you alive. I learnt my lesson that way on a Portugee boat, afore you were thought of."

Carrying his suitcase, Dave went up the gangway, thrilled at the idea of putting his feet on foreign soil. He spent some hours walking along the wharves, where vessels of all nationalities, rigs, and sizes were lying, each one busily loading or unloading. He did not feel in any hurry. There was more money in his pocket than he had ever possessed at any one time, and it was money of which he was proud, for he had earned it.

Dave felt no compunction about having left the Pacific Queen. Mr. Quick did not want him, and he did not want Mr. Quick. Now both parties were satisfied. Barnes was the only person who really might be inconvenienced, and he had said he could easily get some one else "more useful and less impident."

After amusing himself by watching the shipping for a while, Dave decided to keep out of the way until the following evening, by which time his old ship would have sailed. Boarding a street car, he travelled at random to another part of the town, where he began to search for a room. Seeing an elderly man digging in a cottage garden, he spoke to him over the fence.

"Can you tell me where I could get a room for a few nights?" the boy asked.

The man straightened his back.

"I don't jest know," he said, surveying Dave, who was wearing his only respectable suit of clothes. "I 'll speak to my missis."

The "missis," a portly soul with a jovial face, came out.

"I 've got an empty room that my son had afore he went up-country," she said. "You can have that if you don't mind roughing it."

"I'm used to roughing it, being a sailor," replied Dave, feeling just a little bit important.

"For the land's sake!" the, woman exclaimed, scanning him more closely. "I'd never have thought it. You 're only a boy although you are so tanned."

Mrs. Higgins made Dave very comfortable, he having fallen into her good graces at once; and the old people listened with great interest to his story of the voyage, punctuating it with many questions, for they had always been a stay-at-home couple. The boy spent several days with them, being glad of the chance to stretch his legs ashore, and never tired of seeing the strange sights.

Once Mrs. Higgins managed to extract his Brooklyn address from him without arousing his suspicion. In the course of time Aunt Martha received a motherly letter in which she learnt that her Dave was "all well," that he had fallen into good hands during his stay in New Zealand, and that all his shirt buttons were put on and his socks mended before he went to sea again.

Dave encountered some disappointment in the matter of ships. Naturally, he hoped to get a vessel bound for either New York or Boston, but as luck would have it the ships seemed to be clearing for nearly every part of the world except those he wanted to reach. The only two steamers bound for New York had full crews, and in his inmost heart the boy was glad, as neither of them looked equal to the Pacific Queen. His task involved tramping along miles of wharves and docks, and his reception was not always as pleasant as that accorded to him by Captain Chisholm. He was always civil, though, and consequently got a direct answer to his questions, even though it was sometimes given a little brusquely.

On the fifth day he received a definite offer of a berth on a large English boat bound to Cape-town and London, and it was a sore temptation, the vessel being one of the most up-to-date freighters, of between five and six thousand tons. Dave, however, was strongly opposed to the idea of going so far from home. As it was, he had made a very long trip, and he had a great desire to double back on his tracks if possible, so he declined the job. But after several more days had passed he began to grow anxious for he had spent a good deal of his money on various articles which experience had taught him were necessary. With considerable misgiving he went on board a small tramp, at last, determined to accept any berth that was going, and in a few minutes found himself engaged on the ancient steamer Kingfisher, bound for Adelaide and Fremantle, Australia, in the capacity of cook's help and cabin-boy.

Dave bitterly regretted his choice before he had been at sea twenty-four hours. The ship was one of the oldest afloat in those waters, and proportionately dirty. Rats scuttled among the cargo, and even found their way to the crew's quarters. Either because the owners were mean about paint, or because the skipper was indifferent, the old Kingfisher had a dilapidated appearance, and in anything but the calmest weather she was known pleasantly by the crew as "the submarine," by reason of her trick of digging her nose into the waves instead of riding on top of them.

But bad as her appearance and sailing qualities were, it was her machinery which was worst, and Dave found that MacTavish, her Scottish engineer, never tired of bemoaning his fate in having to drive such "scrap iron." The Kingfisher was a much smaller vessel than the one which had carried Dave to New Zealand, and he found that the various officers had a proportionately smaller idea of their own dignity. MacTavish had many chats with the boy, taking a certain amount of interest in him because his own wife was a New York woman. But most of his conversation was about that "rattle-box doon below,"

"I only shipped in her for this voyage," he said, "and if ever we get back to New Zealand, aboot which I have me doubts, I mean to have a word with them owners for sendin' such a bunch of trouble to sea."

"She seems to be working all right," Dave suggested mildly.

"Seems to!" the Scot said in scornful accents. "I s'pose you 're deaf on one side so you canna hear that clackety-clack. It fair gives me toothache to listen to it. Dinna say I told you, but I have my suspicions them engines was once used by Noah in the Ark. They 're worn out, and it passes my wit to know how they hold together. Every bearing is as loose as old age can make it, there is n't a steam pipe that does n't leak, and at night when I turn in I expect to find the whole lot of junk has punched a hole in the bottom of the ship and fallen through by mornin'."

Although Dave guessed much of this was exaggerated, it did not tend to make him feel any happier about his choice of ships.

"She's got through all right before," he said. "Let's hope she will last out this time."

"Aye, she may," observed the melancholy Scot, "and then again she might n't. You know what happens to the pitcher that goes oftenest to the well. One day this tub is going to attend a funeral, and it 'll be her own. It gives me a pain in the spine to think what may happen if we strike rough weather and she starts kicking up her heels. If that old propeller gets out of the water, with a full head of steam driving it at racing speed, I 'll be wishing myself back in bonnie Scotland."

Dave found that a similar state of dissatisfaction reigned everywhere on board, and the mates accordingly had to employ harsh measures in dealing with the men. The food, too, was far from satisfactory, and Dave had to work incessantly, if not for the cook for one of the mates, if not for one of the mates then for the captain. He was kept running all day and soon began to wish he had heeded Barneses warning that he might go farther and fare worse. He consoled himself with the reflection, however, that he was gaining more experience, continually adding to his stock of learning in nautical matters. Hard work and the life in the pure salt air were keeping him in the pink of condition. His muscles were setting, and he already possessed more strength than the average boy of his age. Being naturally ambitious, he began to study the rudiments of navigation in his few spare moments, and in this the second mate gave him some slight assistance, lending him one or two books to read on the subject. One of his greatest hopes was to be allowed to take a trick at the wheel, but this, of course, was out of the question at present.

In spite of MacTavish's misgivings, the Kingfisher chugged her weary way more than a thousand miles to the west, passed through Bass Strait (where Dave got his first glimpse of the coastline of Australia) and finally brought up with a wheeze and a cough of her engines at Adelaide. There the ship was tied up for three days, unloading and loading; and on several occasions the boy found time for a run ashore. Before sailing from there he wrote again to his father, stating that he was well and happy, and relating various incidents which he knew would be of interest. He covered a whole sheet in telling of MacTavish and his "bunch of trouble" down below, never dreaming what an important part those old engines were to play in his career.

After casting off at Adelaide, the Kingfisher passed Kangaroo Island on her port beam, and entered the vast and stormy bay known as the Great Australian Bight, where great currents meet and where the elements rarely seem to be at rest. For full six hundred miles the Kingfisher had to plough her way through a wild sea, and MacTavish's life became a nightmare. Even when he went to his bunk he could not sleep for fear of the man with his hand on the throttle allowing the propeller to "race" as the vessel kicked her heels up; and as luck would have it the leaky steam pipes began to bother him more than ever. Twice they had to lay to in the trough of the sea while all hands in the engine room struggled to repair some defect. The captain, who had been in command of the ship for a number of years, apparently took it as a matter of course. A voyage in the Kingfisher without some serious engine trouble would have seemed almost unnatural to him.

"My hair 'll be snow white," the chief engineer complained to Dave during a breathing spell on deck. "There's something uncanny aboot yon machinery. It's foolin' us all the time. The thing is possessed. It waits patiently until we get one part patched up, before breaking out in a fresh place, but no sooner we 've got her running than she gets up to her old games. I'm only waitin' for one of the cylinder heads to blow off or the boilers to bust, and then I 'll be able to light my pipe in peace and watch the rest of her lie doon and die."

But the boilers held and the cylinders never faltered. Worse trouble was waiting around the corner for the unhappy Scot. Right in the middle of the Bight, when the wind was blowing big guns and giant waves were careering along, the Kingfisher gave a plunge which left her propeller in mid air for the space of several seconds before there was time to shut off steam. MacTavish, feeling the vibration, knew what was happening, and burst into a cold perspiration. If it had occurred on any other ship, he would not have been so concerned; but his "rattle-box" was in no condition to stand treatment of that kind. A few hours later his worst fears were realized. An oiler reported that a crack had developed in the main shaft, near the propeller.

The ship was promptly stopped, and MacTavish made a careful inspection of the damage. For once, the captain was deeply concerned. He, too, went down into the bottom of the ship, to see how bad the trouble was.

"She's cracked at a flaw in the steel," MacTavish declared, "and it's only a question of how much strain is put on her before she rips right off as clean as a carrot. You 'll have to run at half speed, anyway, Cap'n. If you make Fremantle, you 'll be lucky."

For days after that the Kingfisher crawled westwards, with the engineers nursing her "scrap iron" jealously. She managed to scrape out of the Bight and was already within a few hundred miles of Fremantle when a southerly gale struck her in all its fury.

Suddenly, while the ship was pitching, she shuddered convulsively. There was a grating noise in the engine-room, and then silence.

The propeller-shaft had parted, and they were at the mercy of the sea. The only thing that was of the slightest assistance was a fore-and-aft sail which had been rigged, but the canvas was rotten, and it split from top to bottom in a violent gust.

For the first time in his life Dave was facing real danger.

Helpless as a log, the Kingfisher ran before the storm hour after hour. The crew could now do nothing but wait for a possible shifting of the wind. It kept steadily in one quarter, however, and, when darkness fell, the hopes of every one on board fell to zero. Rockets were sent up, but there was no answering signal. All through the night Dave, with the rest of the crew, stood on deck, anxiously looking for something in the nature of a miracle to happen.

Dawn broke after an apparent eternity, only to accentuate the misery of their position. Everywhere the sea was a mass of foam and seething, white-crested waves. Soon the loom of low-lying land ahead became apparent, and toward this they were carried remorselessly. At the end of their cables dangled the two anchors, which, now that the Kingfisher was in shallower water, dragged and retarded her progress somewhat, hut did not hold.

"Stand by the boats," the captain bellowed at last through a megaphone. There were breakers about three cable lengths ahead.

Every man was already wearing a life-belt. The chance of getting ashore, even in the boats, seemed a forlorn one, with such a sea raging.

All waited tensely for the moment when the vessel should strike the ground. Just outside the grasp of the hungry breakers she hit the bottom with a mighty thud which jarred her from stem to stern. The next wave lifted her. Then she struck for the last time, and the days of the old Kingfisher were over.

Waves were breaking right over her when the men were struggling to lower the boats. One boat, containing as many of the crew as could scramble into her, capsized instantly, and Dave shuddered as he heard the cries of the doomed men. He was standing at the side of the ship, waiting with others for a favorable instant to jump into a boat that danced crazily alongside. For a second the small craft was lifted almost up to the rail, and he made a leap, landing, more by good fortune than anything else, in the middle of the boat just as the men in her began to pull away.

The next ten minutes were thrilling. Dave could not think of them for months afterward without a vivid picture of it all flashing into his brain.

There were more than a dozen sailors huddled together in the dancing craft. Dave never knew the exact number. Far too heavily laden, she stood no chance of reaching shore. Straight at the breakers she went. It was neck or nothing. At the worst, the men in her could only die, but they could die fighting for their lives.

The first wave toyed with the crafty, lifting it like a cork before passing on. Twenty feet behind it towered a silent, green wall of water, the crest of which was just beginning to topple over with a hissing, ominous sound. Relentlessly it rushed on, and Dave's heart sank, for he believed that his last moment had come.

The boat shot upward and spun round dizzily, half full of water. The boy clutched one of the seats with nerveless fingers. Every second he expected to feel the wave closing over him. Rowing was out of the question. They were at the mercy of the sea. The boat met the next wave broadside on. It came like some devouring monster, eager for its prey. One of the crew, his nerves strung to breaking point, uttered a hoarse cry as the mass of water struck them. The boat turned completely over, and its occupants sank in a smother of foam, many of them to their doom.

Aided by the life-belt he was wearing, the boy struck out, gasping. At one instant he came to the surface and took a choking breath. The next moment another swirling breaker had caught and overwhelmed him again. His mouth, ears, and nose were full of water. He was rolling over and over and the last of his strength was fast ebbing away. When his head emerged from the foam the thunder of the surf sounded fainter, as though it were drifting away into the distance. Vaguely he wondered what his dad and Aunt Martha were doing, far away at home; but his thoughts were disconnected. He felt an inclination to sleep, although he was being smothered all the time. If only he could get one more breath!

For a flash he returned fully to consciousness, when a sharp pain shot through his knee as it struck a rock. Then came forgetfulness.