A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

THE BURNING OF THE VIBORG

WHAT time it was Geoffrey could not tell when he was awakened; but all was still black dark and the wind was shrieking outside when a scream, a man's scream of terrible alarm, startled him up. He listened for it again and it came with a word this time:

"Fire!"

It rang through the ship, and almost before it was uttered Geoff jumped down. He had got into his bunk with his clothes on, so he was dressed all but for his coat; his boots were against his feet as he sprang to the floor. He stooped and pulled them on.

"Fire!" he shouted, and now the smell of it told him the alarm he heard was real. "Price, fire!"

Latham was sitting up in his bunk. Geoff's hand, going out in the dark, found the man's shoulder.

"I heard it," said Latham, and shook him off.

"The gasoline!" cried Geoff as he straightened. "Three thousand gallons of gasoline!" He beat on the partition between his cabin and his sister's. "Meg, are you up?" he called. "There's fire, do you hear?"

"I heard," his sister's voice came back strongly.

Geoff rushed out from the cabin and on to the deck. The tramp of feet and the commotion already had told him that the men from the stern of the ship were about. A black cloud of smoke, which he smelled and felt rather than saw at first, was rising from the engine-room. Now the red glare of a flame burst out below it and he saw men's big forms battling with buckets. He rushed to them to help; the apparatus and hose of the patent fire extinguisher tangled his feet. The extinguisher tanks were emptied; they had been tried and had been inefficient. McNeal, seeing Geoff, bawled to him to get into the bucket line. Overside on the ice, where he had chopped a hole, Linn was filling pails and handing them up to the fire fighters on the deck. Geoff seized one of these and threw it on the fire and Latham came up behind him.

It made too many men emptying the buckets for the one man filling them. McNeal's hand grasped Geoff's shoulder as he came to the rail and pushed him over to the ice.

"Help Linn!" the skipper commanded hoarsely, and Geoff bent to his work beside the cook. As he filled the pails through the ice and lifted them up, he counted the men snatching them from his hands and rushing with them away from the rail. There were five; all the men were there fighting the fire. Margaret came once to the rail with them, tried to raise a filled bucket, found that she could not and swiftly got herself out of the way. Geoff looked about as he lifted up the pails and no longer saw her; then toward the bow he heard the sound of something falling on the ice. The flame flared higher and in the terrible blazing light he saw Margaret throw over bundles of clothing and disappear to the forward cabins again for more.

There was no choice, as far as safety might be concerned, between her task in the still unblazing forward part of the ship and his and Linn's post on the ice at the ship's side. The flames in themselves were not the direct danger to any one; it was the tanks of gasoline—the hundreds and thousands of gallons still stored in the engine-room and the hold. They made the whole ship one great bomb, an explosive of total destruction for every one anywhere on board or near by, if the fire reached those tanks.

The fire was blazing hottest now in the engine-room, where the tanks lining the walls nearest the fire had been emptied by the demands of the engine. But the fire, in spite of all the water thrown upon it, no longer was blazing in the engine-room alone; it was creeping into the hold and burning among the boxes where the emptied spaces had made a chimney for the draft. There the gasoline was stored in great twenty and fifty and hundred gallon containers all about the sides of the ship. The flames were not yet blazing against them, but they could not be kept away for many more minutes. The two thousand eight hundred gallons of gasoline—as he stooped and dipped his buckets into the icy water desperately and straightened and handed up his buckets, seized the emptied ones and stooped and filled again, Geoff remembered the exact estimate of the amount remaining—two thousand eight hundred gallons of gasoline would go together.

Fear, terror, made him weak, and he dropped a pail he had filled. He tried not to think of it, but to work, work, work. As long as the men going down into the flaming hold would stay, he would stay. Linn, the cook, beside him, bent again and again steadily to his task. They could scarcely see each other now for the smoke, and could not see at all the men who seized the buckets from their hands. These groped, choking and calling for direction through the thick, black cloud. Geoff called back and Linn shouted beside him, and hands blundered down and felt for the filled buckets, lifted the weight from the men on the ice and went away. Either Geoff and Linn were working better or the smoke so slowed the work of the others that the buckets no longer were being emptied as fast as they could be filled; a row of full pails stood unseized upon the deck. Geoff yelled to the cook, sprang up and seized the bucket he had filled and took it and flung it on the fire.

Big, heavy men blundered by him, choking or calling direction and encouragement to each other. McNeal was there in the thick of it—big, hoarse-voiced McNeal, steady and swift with his strong arms. Michaelis, the Danish mate, fought beside him. Geoff made out Brunton and Koehler; then no more. The fifth man was not there now—Latham. Geoff could not see; he could not be sure; any one might be lost in the smoke. What had happened to Latham?

McNeal, as he passed now, missed him too and called for him.

"Latham!" his voice shouted. "Latham! Where are you? Are you all right? Latham, answer!"

He listened while he seized another pail of water and threw it, but no shout came back in return. McNeal shouted again; and after him Koehler.

"I saw him going down the last time I passed him," Koehler called.

"To the hold?" demanded McNeal.

"Toward the hold," Koehler shouted.

McNeal emptied the bucket in his arms and seized a coat which had been flung on the deck. He bound it about his head.

"Keep on with the water, boys," he called. "I'm going down to look for him. Geoff," he turned and commanded, "get your sister away! The Viborg goes any minute now! Get that girl away!"

He dived into the thickest of the smoke and disappeared.

It was plain indeed that the ship must soon go—in any minute, as the captain said. The fire was gaining steadily. How near it was to the gasoline tanks could only be guessed, but it must be very near. There was no longer a chance of saving the ship, that was clear; but the men with the buckets would not yet admit it. Geoff dropped his pail and turned forward to look for his sister. In one way he had forgotten her while he worked with the water; in another way he had been thinking of her. There was no use in taking her away from the ship if the others all were to stay and be lost with it. It would mean for her merely slow death alone by starvation or freezing if the men and the ship were lost, instead of the instant destruction and annihilation with them when the fire reached the gasoline. But he stumbled forward to find her. He groped through the smoke and his hands found a figure.

"Meg!" he called.

"Geoff!" her recognition came back.

"Get off the ship!"

"When you all do!" she returned to him firmly.

"We're going in a minute—right away. Meg! Think of the gasoline!"

"I know!" She had her arms full with a bundle she was saving; she flung it out on the ice. "But I don't go till you do!"

McNeal's voice shouting in hoarse, choking command rang over the ship.

"Everybody get away! Get away!" he bawled. "The fire's got to the tanks; they're heating. Get away!" And he disappeared again below.

"What's he going down again for?" Margaret called, fighting Geoff as he tried to put her away.

"For Latham—he's missing. Koehler thought he might be in the hold."

Geoff felt his sister's grasp become convulsive on his arm.

"Call him back, Geoff!" she cried. "Oh, call him back! Price isn't below. Call him back!"

"Where is he?" said Geoff.

"Call him up—call McNeal up!" she implored wildly. "Tell him Latham's off the ship. I know it!"

Geoff dashed back into the smoke clouding from the hold.

"Jerry!" he shouted. "McNeal! Jerry, Latham isn't there. Come up. He isn't there!"

"Sure?" came from the hold.

"Come up!" Geoff reached down and his hand caught McNeal's and pulled him up.

"Off the ship!" he shouted then, as he came up through the smoke. "Everybody away! Get off! The fire's got to the gasoline!"

McNeal stooped and picked up something from the deck; then going round the little ship he saw that no one else stayed. He drove Geoff off before him and jumped down on the ice.

The flames burst higher from the little Viborg and threw over the ice about a ghastly glow of flaring red, a glowing circle that showed the scurrying figures of the Viborg's little company stumbling away over the ice.

"Father away! Faster!" McNeal made a trumpet of his hands and commanded; and the flames ran up the masts from below and flared out in the rigging. Then a roar and flash from lower down, and a mighty burst of blue, exploding flame smothered over the red and hurled through the air all about great billets of burning wood. A greater burst of flame followed this; and forward and astern, as the first exploding tanks blew up and lit the rest, the gasoline flew into flame, shattering and strewing the little wooden ship into fragments of fire, which shot high into the Arctic night and were scattered in all four directions far over the ice, while the ship burst and burst again with the detonation of the tanks till the last blue eruption strewed the deck boards, bits of beams and spars of the Viborg into blazing heaps or streaking splinters spluttering on the frozen sea.