Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 15
ALONE ON THE CHINA SEA
South Point, the lowest extremity of Formosa, was passed on the following day, a mere speck upon the horizon, and then the bow of the gallant Columbia was turned directly for Hong Kong.
As one day after another went by, the weather, which had heretofore been nearly all that could be desired, changed with great suddenness. One day it would be blazing hot, so hot that no one could stand it on the deck during midday; the next it would be cold, with high winds and a driving rain from the northward, which sent the schooner scudding southward under bare poles, and caused every stick of timber to creak and groan in a manner new to Larry's ears.
"I knowed we would pay up for all that niceness," grumbled Luke Striker, as he came into the forecastle one afternoon drenched to the skin. "We're going to have a spell of the dirtiest weather you ever saw; mark my words."
"It can't be any worse than it is just now," answered Larry, who was holding on to the edge of his berth to keep himself from sliding to the floor. "My gracious! I thought a while ago the Columbia would go clean over! It wouldn't take much sail to pull a stick out of her just now."
"We won't fly a rag for forty-eight hours," put in Hobson, who had followed Striker in. "It's a regular hurricane, and we can be thankful if we keep right side up."
At that moment Olan Oleson approached the doorway from outside. The big Norwegian was as wet as any of them and in a worse humor than usual. In his arms he carried his great-coat, which for some reason he had just taken off. As Larry looked up at him, he swung the dripping garment around and hit the boy fairly across the face with it.
"You tak dat! " he cried. "You no laugh at me for nothank!"
"What do you mean by that, Oleson?" spluttered Larry, as soon as he could speak. "I wasn't laughing at you. I just looked up to see who was coming in."
"I know better—you shut your mouth," blustered Oleson, and then out of pure ugliness of temper he attempted to hit Larry again.
But now the boy was on his guard and dodged. Then he caught hold of the great-coat and attempted to pull it from Oleson's grasp. The Norwegian held fast, and a sharp but short tug-of-war ensued, coming to a sudden termination when a ripping sound was heard and the coat began to tear up the back.
"Now see what you do!" fumed Oleson, as Larry released his hold. "You spoil dat coat. I mak you pay for him!"
"It's your own fault," was the quick answer, as Larry wiped the water from his face. "You had no business to hit me."
"That's right, Oleson; it wasn't fair," broke in Striker.
"You kap out of dis, or I mak you!" shouted the Norwegian, almost beside himself with rage. "He tear de coat and he pay for him. I show you!"
He dashed the garment on his berth and leaped upon Larry. The boy tried to escape, but there was no room in the narrow forecastle, and down he went over a stool, with Oleson on top of him. The fall was a bad one, and Larry's back might have been broken had not both Striker and Hobson interfered and hauled Oleson off.
"Lat go me!" screamed the Norwegian. "Lat go!"
"I will—when you promise to behave yourself," returned Striker. "You're a nice brute to tackle a mere boy like Larry."
"Lat go! I report you to de captain."
"Do it, and welcome," were Striker's words, and giving a sudden twist, he threw Oleson down and sat upon him. The Norwegian squirmed and fumed, but all to no purpose.
How far the quarrel might have gone there is no telling. But now an interruption came—an interruption so terrible that for the time being all else was forgotten.
As I have mentioned, the rain and wind were both high, but up to this time the electrical disturbances in the sky—so common to this locality—had been comparatively insignificant. Now, however, there came without an instant's warning a blinding flash of lightning which blazed upon every part of the Columbia, followed instantly by a crack of thunder which to Larry sounded like the crack of doom.
"Oh!" cried the boy, and fell back a few paces into the arms of Hobson. He could say no more, nor could any of the rest. Silently Striker leaped from Oleson, who scrambled to his feet, and then came another crash, which set Larry's every nerve into a quiver.
"We're struck!" screamed a voice from outside. "On deck, men! on deck!"
"Struck!" gasped Larry. "Oh, I hope not!"
"Gosh, but that was a corker!" burst out Striker, regaining his breath. "Never heard quite sech a hard crack afore."
He darted out of the forecastle, and the others followed him. The lightning had left all behind it almost as dark as pitch, and no one could see where to go.
"Hold tight, or you'll be blowed overboard!" came from Hobson. "Where are we struck?" he yelled as hard as he could, in order to make himself heard above the whistling of the wind.
"The foremast is hit, and the bow's afire!" came in Tom Grandon's voice. "Quick, boys, out with the fire-hose and start up the pump. Remember, the oil pantry is close to the blaze!"
"The oil pantry! God be with us!" The words came from the Rev. Martin Wells. "Let me help at the work, mate; the sooner we put the fire out, the better."
"All right, sir," answered Grandon. "But have a care, or you'll roll overboard. See, men," he went on, "the mast is afire; that is, what is left of it. Hobson, Roddy, get the axes and chop it away. Striker, bring the hose around the mizzenmast and over to larboard. It's a wonder some of you men forward weren't knocked out. The poor captain's senseless. Oleson, help Striker with that hose, and you, too, Larry. Vincent, cut the ropes with a knife, or an axe, if you've got one. The rest of you screw the hose to the pump and turn on the water. I'll chop this woodwork away so you can get at the fire below." And crash! crash! went Tom Grandon's axe, as he worked away manfully, while the crew scurried off in all directions, to do as ordered.
Striker had already run for the hose, and soon several lengths were unreeled, and not only Larry and Oleson, but also the missionary, took hold to drag it forward. The larboard rail was just gained when the Columbia gave a sharp lurch, and down went the three men and the boy in the scupperhole. Oleson came on top of Larry, and took grim delight in planting the heel of his rough boot on the lad's neck.
"Get off of my neck, Oleson!" cried Larry, and then Striker hurled the Norwegian back and scrambled up. He had just reached for the rail, when, muttering some fierce imprecation in his native tongue, Oleson caught Striker by the leg and flung him over the side! For one second the Yankee sailor seemed to hang in mid-air, then with a wild cry he disappeared into the boiling waters beside the vessel.
"Striker!" gasped Larry. "He will be drowned! Hobson! Vincent! Mr. Grandon! Come here! Oleson has thrown—"
He was permitted to go no further, for the Norwegian had now turned and caught him by the throat. "You can a-go wid him!" hissed the infuriated rascal, and forced the alarmed boy over the rail. In vain Larry tried to cling fast; Oleson beat off his hold, and down he went into that same tempest-tossed element, out of sight and hearing of those who were hurrying to answer his call.
How far down into the depths of the China Sea Larry descended he never knew, but it was to him a long distance. Instinctively he closed his mouth and held his breath as he felt the warm currents shift and swirl around him. Was he being drawn down under the Columbia? Fervently he prayed not.
When he did come up, to puff and blow like a porpoise, all was dark around him. He was on the top of a huge wave; a second later he went down into a great hollow, the waves before and behind him seeming like hills ready to tumble in and plunge him out of existence. Again he prayed a silent prayer—yet none the less heard—that his life might be spared to him.
A minute later came another flash of lightning, revealing two things apart from the waste of water around him. One was the Columbia fast receding in the distance; the second was a life-preserver some thoughtful friend had thrown overboard after him.
"Gone!" he murmured, with a sinking heart. "Will they come back? Oh, they must come back! They won't desert Striker and me like this!"The life-preserver floated but a short distance
The Life-preserver floated but a Short Distance away Page 152
The seconds lengthened into minutes after that, and the minutes into hours, and still he floated aimlessly about, the sport of the wind and the waves. Sometimes a wave would break over, his head, almost knocking out of him the little breath that remained. The rain came down as hard as ever, but the lightning and thunder became less frequent, and finally died away altogether, leaving him to the utter blackness of the night.
It was a time never to be forgotten, a time stamped indelibly upon Larry Russell's memory, that lonely night on the China Sea, floating he knew not where, fearing that even if he kept afloat until daybreak no one would come to his rescue, but that he should continue to drift until hunger and thirst should claim him as their own. "Oh, God, help me!" he cried, not once but many times; yet only the whistling wind seemed to answer in mockery.