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The story of a kid who grew up all of a sudden
By Harold Titus
IN THE beginning he was only a kid; just that—casual, indefinite: a kid.
That is what Coburn, Number One at the station, told the others when his laughter roused them from their naps that Sunday afternoon in the squadroom.
“What's the joke?” Connell asked, turning on his blankets, as Coburn, thumbing tobacco into his pipe gazed out across blue Lake Superior, dotted with the last ice flows of May, and let laughter rumble again in his deep chest.
“Nothin'. … A kid.” He stuck the extinguished match stump in his shirt pocket. “Crazy kid from Indiany. Come bustin' into th' boatroom with questions enough to make him stoop shouldered carryin' 'em around. More damn-fool questions 'n I've heard from visitors 'n three enlistments, 'nd he asks: 'Aint the' a lot of romance 'nd adventure in your life?' ”
He drew a wrist across his grinning mouth.
Svenson only blinked in his unresponsive Danish way but Connell smiled as he yawned.
“Wants a hitch?”
“Oh-huh; sure. Sixteen. Seemed real disappointed wphen I told him they wouldn't take him until he's eighteen 'nd then only with his folkses consent.
“'Gee, that's two years yet,' he says. Two years! he says.” Coburn chuckled once more. “Said it like two years' wait was more'n he could stand, an' he'd never been round a Coast Guard station in his life till today.”
“Well, he can have my berth, come December. What was it he wanted? Romance an' adventure?”
“Yeah: romance 'nd adventure … bad.”
“Hell of a lot of it here!” Connell would be through with the service that fall after three years; for almost three years he had planned to ship on an ore carrier. “Hell of a lot of it here. … Je's, wish it'd warm up. That wind eats you alive on patrol.”
So came the first inkling that a new interest had arrived to disturb and amuse the life savers.
It was disturbed because it was nothing less to have a kid come into the squadroom as though he were entering, say, the private office of the bank's cashier uptown. It was disturbing to men of that kidney to be treated with profound respect and something that was almost adoration. It was upsetting to a man like Svenson when on liberty to have a kid fall in beside him and hang and hang for hours and insist on talking about the service and ejaculate “Gee!” or “Jing!” to everything Svenson said and to gaze at him in fixed, awed admiration. And it was downright embarrassing to have a kid find you painting or scrubbing or doing any of the other rough work about the station and get as excited about it as though you were performing a feat that would be dead certain to bring you a life-saving medal!
But after that self-consciousness which came with the realization that a kid was fairly worshipping them passed, the surfmen found amusement in this kid because he was so overwhelmed by the attractions he found about the station that he was a fair mark for joking.
This phase began in the squadroom one night when the four who were neither on watch, patrol or liberty sat killing time before turning in. Their regular nightly caller came almost timidly up the stairs and knocked and waited; knocked again and only opened the door when Coburn called a gruff “Come in.” Then he entered, guileless blue eyes wide, and took off his cap and swallowed as he always did just before he said anything that he considered important.
“Jing, there's a storm out tonight!” he said. “Gee, I'll bet those waves 'uld smash any old boat tonight!”
Coburn closed his magazine and winked at Connell.
“Likely they would, too. Mind, Sam, jus' such a night as this when th' Santa Claus went belly up 'nd we had to swim four miles for every passenger?”
“Yeah-bo! Dead ringer for it.”
They were off! The visitor sank to the edge of a chair in rapt attention and for two hours he perched there, scarcely moving except to turn his gullible eyes from man to man as in turn they sought to out-lie one another.
That game continued for many nights, but when the boy failed to suspect even their most extravagant fictions the edge of interest was dulled and they turned to practical joking wherein minor physical disasters to the butt of the pranks always marked the dénouement.
However, between these jokes serious things were said, information was dropped and when he got one of the crew alone the kid's questions would be answered and be was all eyes and ears and memory.
BEFORE so very long he had ceased to be merely a kid; he had become The Kid, a character of individuality and distinction, of a sort; he had become The Kid for the town, as well. He was a stranger in a small community which distinguished him; he was completely absorbed in one subject and talked it continually; furthermore, he had endowed that subject, which was a commonplace for the town, with a color and importance which was quite beyond the understanding of any who listened to him … and of the male population only the deaf and some of the bed-ridden escaped listening.
This sobriquet, The Kid, carried no hint of affection as it has so many times; neither was it given as a badge of shrewdness or cleverness as it has been given to many a small-town character. It was a distinction bestowed in mockery and was designed to impress in the lad his own nonsensical immaturity.
The Kid was bright enough in most things. McNabb, bookkeeper in the mill office where he worked attested to that.
“Smart enough,” he assured old Martin, keeper of the Coast Guard station, “but he ain't got interest in anything but your work, Cap'n. Cameron, the filer, is his uncle; that's how he come by this job, but I wish somebody'll take him off my hands. Ain't you got a place for him, Martin?”
The keeper smiled slightly and said that his outfit needed no kids.
“But be knows more about your job than he does anything else!” sighed McNabb. “By Lord, Martin, he can tell you everything about your equipment and how to use it! And he talks your lingo all th' time. The other forenoon I had him checkin' tally sheets with me and when we got ready he says: 'Action!' Action, for checkin' tally sheets! He's always tellin' somebody to stand by and last week when you was havin' semaphore drill he stood here in the window and read off your messages until I had to cuss him out! Fact, Martin, he might do you some good; it's sure he don't do anybody a dime's worth of good here.”
“No; no kids,” said the keeper.
Neither did the mill superintendent want help like The Kid when he saw him go flying down the street in the middle of a busy day to watch the Coast Guard at beach apparatus drill. The Kid did not seem to mind being let out, though. He hailed Coburn on the street and reported with enthusiasm that he had a job in a garage.
“I'll learn a lot about gas engines!” he said “That ought to make me a good man when I'm eighteen, oughtn't it?”
Had Coburn been alone he would, at the most, have laughed; but he was standing before the pool room and had an audience so he retorted:
“Mebby, Kid, you can pick up a little romance 'nd adventure tinkerin' lizzies!”
That caused a great laugh and The Kid laughed a bit too, as one may when a great and noble purpose in life emancipates him from the little things that are important to the more earthly minded.
He was in the forerank of a crowd that gathered when Burke, a surfman, plunged from the east pier and dragged out a drowning boy; and as Burke rolled the lad on the crib edge and worked at artificial respiration The Kid's shoulders unconsciously flowed, in restricted measure, the swing of the surfman's body.
“That's right,” he muttered. “That's the way regulations say to do it!”
That was how he lost his garage job: deserting for an hour to watch life brought back to the little boy.
Because his services were cheap he caught on with one of the fishing tugs that call the harbor home.
“It'll learn me a lot about the lake,” he assured Svenson. “That's what a man ought to know before he gets into the Coast Guard.”
The Scandanavian wheezed a rather mystified laugh.
And The Kid lost his berth on the fishing tug because when he was supposed to be busy at shore work late one afternoon he galloped out along the pier while the motor surf boat rumbled down its way and took the water to bring in a launch which floated, out of fuel, on the serene surface of Superior. He waved his hand excitedly to the crew when they came towing the small craft in and helped trundle their boat up to its track and into the shelter. When the work was done the rough jesting began but The Kid seemed oblivious to it. He had helped!
It took him some time to find another job. He was shabby, lived alone in a dark room over a second-hand store and had little to eat. These factors appeared not to worry him, though, for he put in time rowing about the harbor in an old skiff and learning to tie sailor's knots.
He was down to his last coin and had not eaten regularly for a week when a rush at the yard sent the yard boss searching for casual labor. It was November with a gale blowing and when the yard boss offered The Kid those few days of work it meant much because even the high purpose in his heart could not offset inadequate clothing and insufficient food.
“Shake a leg back to the yard, then,” the man said, “I'll get a couple more and let fly at it.”
THE KID went down the street at a trot, warmed already by the prospect of food and clothing, but when he came to the corner he did not turn into the mill yard; instead he stopped and stared and then went pell-mell down to the lake front, for what he saw out there was the hulk of a great freighter heaving in for sanctuary from the angry lake; that, and the crew from the station running out in oilskins and life belts to string along the pier and stand by in case something went wrong.
Nothing went wrong. The ulstered man on the bridge beat seas and weather and brought his ship to haven but The Kid just had to venture into the boat house while the crew pulled off their weather clothing and listen to the talk. Neither romance nor adventure had marked the day, but if Superior had managed to beat the captain …
And by the time The Kid toiled back up the hill the disgusted yard boss had found another for the place; so, that night, as on some in the past and many in the future, he slept cold and hungry … but his dreams were thrilling!
That winter he fished through the ice; he was out for long hours in all sorts of temperatures and managed to live on the fish he sold, but that feature of his occupation was secondary for The Kid.
“Bein' out that way a fella learns lots about weather signs,” he remarked. “That helps in the Coast Guard.”
“I s'pose old Martin's breakin' his neck to get you on,” a man who heard taunted. “Two of the boys are through and he's got orders to fill up.”
With that The Kid left the tobacco store and trotted down to the reservation where the keeper and his wife lived alone during the winter.
“Cap'n, I heard you're looking for men,” he said, after that preliminary swallow. “I'll be eighteen in March.”
Bored as he was with The Kid, Martin did not rebuff him. There was such an honest hunger in the blue eyes that he felt it easier to explain.
“You see, Kid, it ain't years that count, except in regulations; it's age.”
“Sure, but I'll be eighteen and my father'll be glad——”
“No, no; you don't see what I mean. It's age; not years. A man don't grow up with how long he lives.” Martin screwed his brows as he struggled with his inarticulateness to say what he felt. “A man grows up with what he sees an' what he thinks about what he sees. This service ain't a place for a kid who's after romance an' adventure. None of that in it. It's a place for one who's content to rot from idleness for months an' then risk his life an' break his back for pay that ain't enough. There's some that might do it at eighteen, but, mostly, it seems it's only men who're old as th' hills … in th' way they think.”
The Kid searched the keeps face, not comprehending.
“Well,”—with that swallow again—“d' you think you'd want me later?”
Martin sighed and scratched his beard. What he wanted to say was that there are men of a kind who will do for paltry compensation the things that most men would not do for any price; that many respected men would not even do to save their honor. He wanted to say that these men are, outwardly, like regiments of other men; that, perhaps, they are considered the inferiors of armies of men; but that in them, somewhere, is an appreciation of values that sets them apart from their fellows and lets them go through life, for the most part, unheralded and unsung … and too often to their heroic deaths without due comment. But Martin could not say—perhaps not even think—these things, so he became a bit impatient with himself and replied abruptly:
“No. Not if you'd be eighty in March. There ain't a place for you.”
Finality, there, but The Kid was not rebuffed … only temporarily. It did not stop his high dreams or dampen his hopes. He kept on with his talk, though there were fewer to listen, even to mock, now. He was a stale joke and only rarely was he given attention; then the ridicule was broad and laden with bitterness. The loafers told him he would be afraid to go out with the crew on any important call and were vulgarly explicit in designating the degree of that fear. Coburn and Burke and the others of the crew who wintered in town supported such statements and told The Kid that one trip in half a sea would shut him up.
“Oh, no, it wouldn't!” he would state with a serious shake of his head. “Not much, I wouldn't be afraid! A fella ain't afraid whom he wants to do a thing as bad as I do and when there's adventure an' romance in it!”
They harped on fear until they convinced themselves that The Kid had no courage and they sneered at him, angry because they could not anger him. …
March, and the station commenced to take on life and The Kid, thin and ragged but with a high light in his eyes, burst into the boathouse where Svenson and the keeper worked on a motor. He waved an envelope excitedly before the two men.
“Got it, Cap'n!” he cried.
Martin looked over his spectacles.
“My dad's consent to take a hitch.”
The keeper spit. To Svenson he said:
“Gi' me that S-wrench.”
That seemed to work into The Kid's spirit and he stood silent a brief interval and then, before turning away, he said:
“Well, if you ever do need a man, Cap'n, I'll be standing by.”
Martin did need men. Wages for common labor were up and all through the summer Numbers Six and Seven were temporary employees. not enlisted men but hired from month to month. Martin could not comply with the order to recruit up to strength.
The Kid did not go back to him again. He did not talk so much to people about the Coast Guard and when, for want of better diversion, some one singled him out for a taunt or a gibe he winced a bit. He would try to smile when they plagued him but the result was not wholly convincing. He worked at odd jobs and on fair evenings could be seen sitting on the pier near the station, watching the widely-spaced procession of great carriers that moved upward toward Duluth or down for Chicago or Cleveland or Buffalo; passing ships that some day might need the help of the men who moved about the Coast Guard reservation and who now and then flung toward him some derisive observation or greeting.
So summer waned and the lake, instead of lying blue and vivid with life under azure skies, tossed in a deathly gray beneath low scudding clouds. Day and night the watch stood in the look-out tower; through the hours of darkness the beach patrol tramped the surf edge, alert for ships in distress, but only minor happenings called out the crew, only trivial assistance was given to men not sorely in need.
Until late November.
Ah, November on Superior! The steamer track from Duluth canal, where the ships with their cargoes of grain and ore leave sanctuary, to Point Iroquois, where they find the haven of St. Mary's river, crowds four hundred miles; and in places the gales from the Arctic have a full hundred and fifty miles of sweep to stir water that lies a thousand feet deep into tumultuous seas. Bold shore lies to the lee where rollers may curl from fathoms of depth to bash their crests against mountains of age-old rock. Harbors are few, cold becomes intense, and owners and masters and crews gamble with the elements to rush commodities to destined ports before insurance companies refuse the risks or ice blocks the way. No gentle puddle, is Superior!
And in November those small bands of men who admit of no romance or adventure in their lives redouble their vigilance because Superior has claimed so many ships and men … in November.
This November was not unlike many another savage month that has been recorded since men began transporting by water the grains of the west and the ores of the north to ports that lie in a gentler zone. Ice formed over the shallows and was broken up by steady gales and welded again by the cold until it floated or snuggled the beaches in massive husks. The harbor piers and the Coast Guard buildings became sheathed with ice formed from spray, and ships that passed were hoary with a chill veneer.
But nothing happened. November was all but gone; within a few days the lights would be dark; shortly thereafter the locks of the St. Mary's canal would close for the season and then traffic on this, the greatest of inland seas, would go dormant until another spring. And with the narrowing margin of time in which disaster might occur, tension screwed up tightly and down in the Coast Guard station the men went about silently, as armed forces will in the face of impending battle. …
Then came the twenty-seventh and the great blow. It struck suddenly, sweeping in from the northwest, growing from a chill breath to a living gale in the course of a brief afternoon; it gave little warning, for the barometer had not commenced its plunge before the blow struck. Storm signals crept to the tips of their staffs along the lakes and press dispatches flashed the word that eighteen great carriers had cleared Duluth only a few hours before the storm gods opened their reservoirs of fury.
Eighteen carriers out in that screaming weather, wallowing for shelter, with their cargoes and their crews, plunging through the snow squalls, laboring under a growing burden of ice, for the mercury shrank alarmingly.
The lake water, driven forward by the wind faster than deep currents could drag it back, rose quickly. It put the piers awash, it crept up to the floor of the boathouse on the reservation and the ice came with it, piling up with grindings and mutterings.
In the early evening Martin tumbled his crew out and called for help from the town to do what he could; but he was too late, he had underestimated the rise of the lake and before they could commence to make equipment safe a great cake, lifted by a roller to the top of the window of ice that fringed the beach, thundered down its rough incline and smashed the whole side from the boatroom. Another came, and others. The motor lifeboat was stove in, its port bow a ruin, and the motor surfboat was shoved from its trucks, rammed into the far side of the building and its propeller ripped to ruin.
They dragged the twenty-five-foot Beeber-McLellan—their last boat—back to a safe place and set posts against more ice, but the ruin had been done and now, even should they dare to risk the fury in a boat they must go in one driven only by oars.
IT WAS dawn, a tardy, leaden dawn, with no sign of the storm's abatement when the watch saw the great hulk nose in from the curtain of snow out there. He slid down his ladder and ran shouting toward the crew that still toiled against the ice and they dropped that work which, on the instant, became an insignificant detail.
Low in the water, rolling ponderously, with great seas boarding her stern to go frothing the length of her and smash to smother against the high-standing texas, the ship came on, and as they gather to watch she spoke, one long, muffled bellow of a whistle which said as plainly as a human voice could have said:
“Stand by! It's so narrow!”
Such a small mark to shoot at, the breadth of those piers! They thrust into the lake two full points east of north which meant the freighter must swing her starboard rail to the seas. She did, and they saw her buried in froth; saw her drift off, and her movement change. …
“Can't make it; he's got 'em astern!” growled Martin.
Astern they were, propellers churning the water to drag her back and away from the shallows for another try at the mark she must hit, at the mark on either side of which lurked disaster.
The keeper turned to Coburn.
“Man th' beach cart and stand by,” he said without excitement. He was leaning against their one boat as he spoke, but he knew that if that craft yonder missed her haven and beached no boat could live to help her. The breeches buoy would be the only hope of life for those men. …
But even as the crew turned to man the beach cart Svenson let out a low oath and eyes turned lakeward again. Something had gone wrong. She had swung around, broadside to the weather; she had lost her weight; she was drifting! And again the whistle spoke in short, husky barks. Steering gear failed, propeller threshed off; any of the many things that might happen to render a ship helpless had happened. …
“Right, now! Forward!”
Lines over their shoulders, the crew rumbled the heavy cart with its cannon and equipment down the beach.
It seemed on that first grounding as though the ship would roll completely over but she did not. Canted at a terrific angle she lay a brief interval but the next heavy sea picked her up, righted her and dragged her over the ledges, putting her down in a smother of spray. Her bow stood stiff and high and her stern sagged desperately; out of line, too, for the impact had broken her hull and great flakes of ice fell from her side as the steel plates buckled and gave.
They saw that portion of the crew that had been aft go forward, running the five hundred feet of open, sea-swept deck; dropping flat, clinging to lines when rollers boarded, scrambling up and lurching on for the texas.
By then the whole town was out, a trickling flight of men and women to the beach, clustering about the Lyle gun.
They fell back with excited cries to one another when the keeper waved at them; they watched with tense faces as he knelt to sight; and with misgiving and hope they saw the light shot-line follow the fleeting projectile out into the wind. It went high and true; the strand dropped across the ship's bow.
Figures emerged from the pilot house and secured the line. It twitched outward and, after a long wait, came taut. The whip-line traveled out, its block dragged through the lather of surf and the watchers on the beach saw many hands, working with the speed that desperation can give men, drag it into the pilot house and Martin's glass let him see the line made fast to the post of the steering wheel. A good anchorage, that; as good as the electric light pole near-by to which the shore end of the hawser would be made fast, permitting them to take out enough slack so the men yonder might not sag into the surf too much as they swung shoreward in the breeches buoy.
Slow work; painfully slow work. The ship's funnel went slowly down and overboard. The roof of the cabin was upended and torn away in sections; the stern settled lower and the buckled plates amidships drew apart, showing ragged edges. Slow work, and in the face of the rapid assault of relentless seas.
They manned the whip-line and started the hawser on which the buoy was to travel snaking outward. It fed itself into the surf, the weather end completed half its journey … and stopped!
Somewhere the new line, ice weighted and stiffened, had snarled. They on shore could see the cluster of men in the pilot house working valiantly and waited breathlessly, waited while the great craft stirred under the hammering and thrust her bow higher. … Flags fluttered from the tilted deck, wig-wagging methodically. … There was no time to shoot again, to wait while all those thousands of yards of line could be handled. The hunger of the seas would not permit that.
“It's the boat or—” Old Martin did not name the alternative. “Here, you men; help drag her.”
Four times the number that could find a hold on the surfboat followed him at a trot. They slid and carried it back to where hawser and whip-line emerged from the surf and there old Martin stood a moment, surveying that water of tortured waters.
The seas angled in across the piers; rollers twisted about the wreck, curling in from bow and stern to meet in a churning, tossing confusion of frustrated crests until between shore and ship there was no run to the seas, only a mad mingling of eddies and currents. What chance had a boat in that?
Martin knew a boat unaided had no chance, but his boat would have aid. At his order the whip-line was passed around the electric light pole up the beach, the crutch went up, the slack came out. Then while the crew and volunteers ran the boat across the shore ice and into the seething froth the keeper passed a painter from bow to the whip-line and another from the stern. She was secure, then, to a makeshift trolley.
“All right!” he cried. “In with you. …”
And, steadied by those painters, the boat moved outward as the six oar blades swung to meet the first rearing heave of a broken roller.
Ah, such a passage; such a passage! But for her self-bailing construction the boat would have swamped in that first plunge; but for the painters she would have rolled over and over before a third of the distance had been negotiated. But for the strength in their backs and hearts they would have quit long before they reached the worst of that going.
ON SHORE none spoke. Men drew close to one another, fearful even to witness that peril without a near presence. They saw old Martin go overboard with a great sea; saw him cling to the life line looped along the rail; saw him flounder aboard and retake his tiller and throw out an arm in a driving gesture. They saw Burke, at number six, hurled among the others as the boat stood on end and careened backward. They saw spray fly high, saw the craft retreat, saw the ragged stroke steady again and saw her go on, disappearing for intervals until only the creeping painters on the whip-line gave evidence that a boat and men were there.
They saw her gain the scant lee of the wrecked bow where Burke stood up and heaved a line … again and again; but the wind kept the line from the hands above that would snatch it. No use to try that longer; it took time … and the seas were swift. Then, one after another, seven men were seen swinging themselves down the whip-line to fall or drop into the lifeboat. Seven, and while others clustered at the rail ready to go Martin and his crew backed away.
Backed away; there was no turning in that confusion of waters. They backed in, with the rescued men lying among them and beating at the ice which clogged the bailing valves. When the stern grated the beach twenty waded in to grasp the gunwales and hold her steady and others lifted out the nine. Nine in all, for besides the rescued men Svenson and Wilcos of the Coast Guard were carried moaning up the beach. The strain and the cold had done for them and now old Martin, beating the ice from his beard, called out for a volunteer.
“An' quick! There's twenty left an' she's done for. …”
“I'm here, Cap'n.”
It was the first time any in the crowd had noticed The Kid. He had been there from the first call sent out last night but this had been no morning to give heed to the town joke.
“I'm here, Cap'n,” he said again and slapped his ragged mittens together, partly in excitement, partly from cold.
Martin made no reply. Haffner, his Number Seven, who had been left on shore, was already in the boat.
“One man,” urged the keeper, eye on the crowd. “One more.”
One, a fisherman, silent, stalwart, stripped belt and oilskins from the exhausted Burke and ran into the surf while The Kid stood with his broken shoes in the water, watching them with an odd look in his eyes.
Again the torturous trip; again the return when strength was spent, and six more of the stranded crew were landed. … Six left out there with the beat of the seas so swift!
McDonald—Number Three—gave up, cursing stiffly as he was helped to shore.
“Another man!” called Martin, with a suggestion of dismay in the tone.
That time the keeper turned on The Kid.
“Man, I said!” he cried and swore shortly. “Man. … Get back!”
And with a hand on The Kid's chest he shoved him away and faced the crowd. An instant followed with little movement. Then a man, rather gently putting off a woman's grasp on his arm, stepped forward and left her weeping, her back to the lake. There was no strength in her to watch her man brave that.
Fear was justified. Fear and misgiving was on the faces of the crowd as the boat put out. The passage was slower, this time, for the fresh arms at the oars could not offset the fatigue that dragged at those who had made the other two trips. Twice they retreated as the seas caught the boat when the stroke was ragged; for minutes they could do no more than hold their own. But they carried on, toiled through.
The hand-over-hand progress of the men from the ship down to the boat was quicker, more feverish, then. Four came and the small craft was carried shoreward; the men in her struggled to go back for the others; failed … gave up.
“Two left!” old Martin cried before well in and this time, for certain, he was desperate. “Th' cap'n and one man. She won't last. Another man to help. …”
He waited as he had waited before. No responsive movement rewarded his idea. He looked into the face of one who helped hold the boat steady and the man looked away.
“Pete?” he-called to one on the edge of the crowd. Appeal was in the tone and a charge of some sort, a challenge. But the man shuffled and shook his head, mumbling a word about children. …
“Anybody? They can't pull it alone.” He gestured to his five men, bent over their oars, breathing heavily.
AND then The Kid came again. He walked into the water to his knees and stood close to the boat so Martin could look into his eyes, wider than ever, now.
“I'm standin' by, Cap'n,” he said, with that swallow. “I've been practicin' in my skiff all summer.”
One more look from the life saver to those on shore, a long, searching look which ran from face to face and then, almost in disgust, Martin spoke:
“Number Seven oar. Give him a life-belt, you …”
“The fool!” a man muttered and his companion nodded and added: “An' he can't pull his own weight, let alone the fear of it!”
“Up you go!” They boosted The Kid into the boat and he tumbled to his feet, rubbing forming ice from the oar with his ragged mitten.
“All right! Run her out!”
And old Martin, crouched a bit in tensity, this time, watched his men bend to the toil.
Coburn, groggy from exhaustion, rallied himself to set the stroke. He moaned as he lay back and set his face toward the furious sky.
A sea boarded and Number Four let go his oar and fought to remain inboard.
“Steady, now! It's all of us, includin' them yonder … or none of us! Pull, you devils!”
That was it, then; all or none! They pulled for the best that was in them and the boat lurched her laggard way outward and as they moved so painfully Martin could read in the fixed grimaces of pain and fatigue before him confirmation for his growing doubts. From man to man his gaze traveled as he steered and he read only the story of frittered strength until his eyes fixed on the face of The Kid.
He swore through his teeth, then, because on that face was fear. Gone was that searching for romance and adventure, gone the confidence, gone the hopefulness. The Kid was scared; scared white and to the point of helplessness as he felt the boat leap beneath him, as he saw the twisted, broken remnants of seas sucked into the caldron that pier and ship created.
“Pull, you, Kid!” barked Martin. “Pull, you fool!”
The lad's eyes turned to him and he tried again to pull but his effort brought only futile wavings from the oar. A clipping leap of spray caught the blade, caught The Kid off balance, too, tore the oar from him and with a scream cut short as the stout butt met his chin he went over and backward.
“Fool!” cried Martin again. “Fool I was, to bring you!”
None other turned to see. The man beside The Kid snatched at the oar as it pivoted and the boy himself on hands and knees, lifted his face to the wreck beyond.
The texas was going. Cakes of ice, boarding the wreck, had hammered away supports on the starboard side of the pilot house until the structure sagged; as he looked it gave and settled and then wilted down over the windward rail. Two figures, clinging for hold, appeared on deck, fitting the water and two faces turned toward him. It seemed just that; they turned toward him; not toward the oncoming boat; toward him, The Kid, looking to him for help!
He floundered back to his seat. He saw the man before him wilt and break the stroke. He saw that instead of dragging the icy hung painters outward along the whip line they were drifting backward. He saw Martin lean over Coburn and plead with him. He heard a man cry out that they were through, that there wasn't another pound of pull left in the boat … He heard and saw … and he saw before him, floating in the spindrift and snow, vague outlines of faces, looking to him for help.
The Kid leaned back on his oar, shutting his teeth, feeling the muscles of back and legs knot with the strain. His own voice called out: “Pull! … Pull!”
He saw Martin's gaze whip back to him as oar blades flashed before his eyes in ragged measure. The man cried out again that it was no use and The Kid laughed, a thin, shrill laugh.
“Goin' to quit?” he taunted. “With two … dependin' on you?”
He squeezed his eyes shut as he strained and could not see Martin's amazement and, because he could not see, gave no heed to the keeper's hard, “Shut up!”
He spoke again! “Quit, when you're … all that stands between 'em … and th' lake! … A fine bunch … to depend on!”
He opened his eyes as he bent forward and saw Coburn's face turn toward him.
“Sounds fine on shore: that … you quit … That you let me … try it alone … said I'd be scart. … I was … but there's two men … You're a fine … bunch!”
He finished the stroke with a gasp of effort.
“Oh, you're fine at rulin' a kid, you are … if you was as good at pullin' … You'd quit, now? … With me to see it? You yellow-bellied four—”
A boarding sea drowned the balance of it.
Even in the turmoil of his heart and the tumult of weather The Kid sensed a change. He was angry, mad, recoiled to the depths of his soul. For the first time he experienced hot resentment for their jokes: for the first time he was hurling defiance. He had taken their ridicule without feeling much sting, but now it was as though in a few moments he re-lived all those months of abuse and the mockery that he had shed returned to sting him to the heart. He was no longer a boy, seeking romance and adventure. He had left that quest behind when fear came; and he had left fear behind when the realization of life's preciousness, of death's nearness descended on him as those two faces peered from what was left of the wreck. He had a job to do and he needed help!
HIS hands were numb with cold; his back muscles seemed starting from their tendons with the strain, but he called out again that they were quitters, four-flushers, and that he'd have a tale to tell if he ever got ashore.
“Shut up!” a strained voice cried, not Martin's, this time.
“Like hell I will … I'll tell it … I'll tell the …”
He looked up at the keeper's ice-masked face. With a sidelong glance he caught the movement of the painter on the whip line, crawling along steadily, inch by inch: moving outward … outward!
“And you'd let a kid … show you … up, eh? Get overboard you … rats and I'll … pull her … alone!”
Again Coburn looked back at him and his face was dark with anger but The Kid did not notice. He was laughing his mockery into the stormy sky.
And then Martin commenced to talk; he cursed them for an uneven stroke. He spoke to man after man, railing him by name.
“Together, now! … He's showin' you up … Th' Kid's showin' you up!”
The Kid talked no more. Blood torrented in his ears, drowning even the scream of the gale. His breath was quick and irregular; things swam before his eyes. His weeks of irregular living came in for an accounting now; the hours that he had spent in last night's cold were taking their toll. … His eyes were closed and his jaws locked in endeavor but he laughed, a muffled, moaning sound.
They went on. Under Heaven, they went on! His taunts had broken through the pride in those men, had transmuted pride into strength and as The Kid pulled, they pulled, pulling their very hearts out. …
The Kid sensed a change in the boat's movement. He pulled the harder and swore at them. A shout came to him and someone struck him in the face and held his arms against the savage movements of rowing. He tried to stand up and fight … fight the fools who had quit, and was swallowed in water.
Martin caught him by one ankle as the wave ripped The Kid past. They dragged him back into the boat, a limp, moaning figure, as the master of the wrecked carrier fell among them.
“Cap'n, have you stren'th to man that oar?” old Martin asked.
The rescued officer did not reply; not in words. He crawled to the place The Kid had recently occupied and they went backward amid the strewn wreckage of the doomed ship's upperworks. …
It was late afternoon.
The Kid sat alone beside the cook stove in Martin's house. He had found himself there on a couch, covered deep by blankets and had shoved himself erect just as the door opened.
Old Martin spoke no word of greeting. He stood there with his back to the door, eyeing The Kid. The stare that met his was from wide, serious blue eyes; eyes that had looked on death; no longer eyes of the immature, but of one who senses the riddle of life's dearness.
The keeper cleared his throat oddly.
“All right, Kid?” he asked.
The other nodded. “All right,”—faintly. “All right, now … but, jing, Cap'n, you sure scart th' hell out of me today!”
Martin came close.
“Scart? You wasn't scart the half … You … I … You still got that letter from your daddy?”
The Kid nodded, not quite comprehending.
“Would you like to take a hitch? This year's most done but the' 's another comin'.”
“Yeah … another comin'. And you want to fill up?”
The Kid swallowed.
“An' you'd like to take me on, Cap'n? A kid like me?”
His eyes were wider than ever and his voice shook with a species of humility.
“Yeah, a kid like you,” Martin said gruffly. “Just like you, son.”
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1967, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 55 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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