Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII


THE CAPTURE OF A SAWFISH


"A Sawfish, sure as you're born!"

It was Tom Grandon who uttered the cry, and as the words left his lips, he pointed excitedly to the rear of the yawl, through which was thrust a dark, bony substance very much resembling the blade of a double whip-saw. Back of the yawl a big fish was floundering,—the sawfish itself,—churning the water into a white foam.

"Russell! Striker! where are they? " shouted Captain Ponsberry, and then turning, he darted towards his cabin, to bring up a harpoon hanging upon the hooks below.

"A sawfish! A shark!" yelled those who had been following the racers; and at once there was a wild scramble to gain the side of the Columbia. Ropes were thrown over by Tom Grandon and several others, and the men lost no time in clambering up to the deck. Then came a rush to the taffrail.

All this while the sawfish was doing its best to extricate its saw from the wreck of the boat. This was not easy, and the splinters continued to fly in all directions, while the flying spray reached even to those who watched the struggle. The fish was at least eight feet long, while the saw was a yard more, and it looked as if the yawl would be pounded and cut into bits before the conflict came to an end.

"Where in the world are Larry and Striker?" cried Hobson. "They can't be tangled up under that fish, can they?"

"God forbid!" murmured the Rev. Martin Wells. "Yet I see nothing of them," he added sorrowfully.

Captain Ponsberry now reappeared, harpoon in hand. In years gone by the captain had been a whaler, and the harpoon was one with which he had struck many a monster of the deep. A light line was attached to it, which he rapidly uncoiled.

"Now, then, make room, and I'll give the rascal a taste of this!" cried the master of the Columbia; and standing on the taffrail, he took careful aim and let drive. There was a short whiz; the harpoon was seen to pierce the sawfish's side, and instantly the struggles grew more violent, while the sea was dyed a deep crimson.

"Good! he's struck!" cried several of the crew. "Shall we haul him in, captain?"

"No; hold the line, that's enough—he's not dead yet, and we don't want him to smash anything more," was the answer. "Ah, he's free of the yawl now! There he goes! Hold hard, all of you, or he'll pull you overboard!"

The men held "hard" as ordered, and the sawfish left the stern of the Columbia only to dart forward towards the bow. Then it went back and forth, hitting the line with its saw, but failing to break it. But the movements grew weaker and weaker, and at last ceased utterly, and then the great fish turned over on its back, and the fight was over.

"He's dead," muttered Tom Grandon. "But where are Russell and Striker?"

"Perhaps the sawfish struck 'em and killed 'em," suggested the boatswain.

As he spoke he caught sight of Olan Oleson, who had not gone swimming, but had continued to chew his quid in sullen silence. An evil smile of satisfaction lit up the Norwegian's face, much to Cal Vincent's disgust. "He wouldn't like anything better than to see poor Striker and the boy sent to Davy Jones' locker," he muttered.

And now let us find out what really had become of Larry and his friend. As has been told, the hands of both went up to the gunwale of the yawl simultaneously; then came the shock and the flying splinters, and Larry felt himself drawn under, his feet caught in the curl of something cold and slippery.

"A shark—I am lost!" was his agonizing thought, and he bumped up against Striker. The tail of the sawfish slapped first one and then the other, and it was a fortunate thing that the creature had its saw fast in the boat, otherwise one of them might have been killed.

Larry was now out of breath, yet he kept his mouth closed, knowing that if he swallowed any of the ocean's brine his senses would surely forsake him and he would be drowned. He felt for Striker, who also felt for the lad, and each clutched the other by the arm.

It was at this juncture that Captain Ponsberry came on the scene with the harpoon, and the sawfish was struck just as Larry and Striker managed to get their feet against the yawl's bottom and send themselves several yards off, although deeper below the surface than ever. Instinctively both struck out, and a distance equal to that already from the enemy was covered ere either dared to come up, to get a breath of much-needed air.

"Are you safe?" was Striker's first question, and seeing that Larry was, he continued, "What was it?"

"I—I—don't know!" gasped the boy. "It's pretty big, whatever it is. Oh, see, they have a line attached to it and are hauling it round to the starboard!"

They had floated to the port side of the Columbia, and now swam as rapidly for the ship as their exhausted condition would permit.

"On deck there! Throw us a line, if ye want us aboard!" piped up Striker.

"Gee shoo! it's the boys!" ejaculated Tom Grandon, and a rush was made by those who were not holding the sawfish. Several lines were cast overboard, and in a twinkle Larry and the tall Yankee were once more safe on board.

"God be praised for His mercies!" murmured Mr. Wells, as he helped Larry over the rail and noticed how weak the lad was. "You have had a narrow escape, Lawrence, and you, too, Striker."

"I guess it was narrow!" returned the boy, as he wiped the water from his eyes. "But what is it?"

"A sawfish, and a big one, too, according to Captain Ponsberry."

"I was afraid it was a shark," put in Striker. "Phew! the way he hit the jolly-boat was a caution! I'm afraid the boat is about done for."

But he was mistaken. During the week following, the boatswain, who was also the ship's carpenter, put several new planks and ribs into the yawl, as well as tarred and calked her, and then the small craft was as good as ever.

It was no small task to get the sawfish on board, yet by means of loops around the head and tail, made of strong ropes, it was accomplished, and the creature was laid out on the deck for the inspection of passengers and crew alike. The body was long and thin, and of a gray and white color, ending in a double fan-shaped tail. The saw, so styled, was a horny protrusion extending from the snout of the fish, several inches in diameter, and furnished along its length with long but somewhat blunt teeth, the teeth being quite close together near the point. It was not a fierce fish to look at, neither was it a handsome creature.

"He goes pretty well armed," remarked the missionary, as he looked the fish over with much interest.

"You'd think so if you'd see him attack a whale, as I've seen," replied Captain Ponsberry. "He makes a dive and a swish! and the first thing the whale knows he's got that saw right through his belly, and then the chances are he'll lose all interest in living; for if the first strike don't kill, the sawfish will be off before the whale can strike back, and he'll come on again, and there will be another ripping time. He's a fearful fighter, for all of his meek looks. When he gets into a school of small fish, he strikes our right and left with that saw, and after it's all over there will be dead fish everywhere. I once heard a learned professor say he was first cousin to the shark, and second cousin to the skate, a kind o' binding link betwixt the two."

"Is he good to eat?" questioned another of the passengers.

"Every fish is good to eat—if you like the taste of the meat," returned the captain, sagely. "As for me, I don't want any sawfish steaks, although I have tried 'em."

"I'm sure I don't want anything to eat from him," half whispered Larry, at which Striker laughed.

"Won't you now, Larry? Now that ain't me—I'd much rather eat my enemy nor have my enemy eat me; hang me if I wouldn't!"

Yet, later on, when Jeff came along to get some of the sawfish's meat to bake over the galley fire, he was told nobody wanted any, and after preserving the saw, Captain Ponsberry had the body hove overboard.

Larry was tired out by the swimming race and by the adventure with the sawfish, and he was glad enough, after examining the fish, to lie down in his berth and take a rest and, later on, a good night's sleep. Striker also slept soundly, and when early in the morning a breeze sprang up and the sails were hoisted. Captain Ponsberry gave orders not to disturb them, but to let the others do the necessary work.

"They've earned the rest, poor chaps," he said, "so let 'em have it."

The prediction that an island of the Farallon de Pajaros group would be sighted inside of two days was fulfilled. At noon on the second day Captain Ponsberry, sweeping the northwestern horizon with his glass, sighted a long, low shore backed up by a hill of rocks, and at once had the course of the Columbia changed to that direction. The island kept growing larger and larger, and before sunset they came close up to it, and the yawl put out to find a safe entrance to what looked like a secure harbor. The coral reefs were numerous, but after an hour's soundings Tom Grandon found a safe channel, and the Columbia swept in and came to an anchor.

"What a sweet smell!" were Larry's first words, as he stood at the rail, gazing at the shore, over grown with brush, with here and there a stately cocoanut or other palm tree. "I wonder what it is."

"That is cinnamon you smell," answered Mr, Wells. "You must know that we are now approaching those islands which grow the larger part of the spices which are used throughout the world. Oceanica, as these islands are termed taken together, produces cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and numerous other spices. As a rule the cinnamon comes from Ceylon, but single trees of that variety are to be found elsewhere, as in the present case."

"I trust we get a chance to run ashore," said the boy, eagerly. "That looks like quite a large island. I wonder if it is inhabited?"

"That is hard to say. Certainly there are no evidences in sight to prove there are inhabitants, yet there may be some natives on the northern shore. There are many thousands of islands situated in this portion of the Pacific and Indian oceans, and the population is constantly shifting. You may visit an island one year and find there a considerable settlement; go there the next year and you will find not a soul. An earthquake has come, or a dreadful storm, or an enemy, or, mayhap, the inhabitants have heard of a better place and become emigrants."

"And what are the natives—Kanakas, like those at Honolulu?"

"Hardly, although you will find Maoris here, similar to the people of New Zealand, from whom the Kanakas are supposed to be descendants. The majority of the natives are Malays, but there are also millions of black, woolly-headed people, known as Papuan negroes, and, of course, there are on the larger islands many whites, from Europe principally, as well as Chinese and Japanese."

"It's a strange land."

"Taken as a whole it is fairly well known, but there are many islands that have never been explored, and there are many spots that no sea-captain would care to visit, for fear his ship would fall into the hands of pirates. But, thanks be to God, who watches over us all, this great, unknown world is slowly but surely giving itself over to Christianity, and with Christianity will come civilization in its best form. I do not fear for the future, although at present the horizon is sometimes dark," concluded the missionary, reverently.