For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

WITH THE COAST PATROL

THE U. S. S. Wanderer plunged her nose into the blue-green waters of Nantucket Sound, tossed them high in glittering spray that rattled against the slanting glass of the little wheel-house—only they liked to call it the bridge on the Wanderer—and raced on at a good twenty knots, leaving a fine hillock of sea under her low taffrail and a long snow-white wake behind. It was a brisk, sunshiny morning in late April. A blue sky that held a half-cargo of cottony clouds grayed into mist at the horizon. A few points off the starboard bow Handkerchief Light Ship swayed her stumpy poles and marked the southern limit of the four mile shoal. Beyond, the sandy shore of Cape Cod glistened in the sunlight, and to port Nantucket Island came abreast.

The Wanderer was but ninety-six feet over all and was built with the slender proportions of a cigar. Barely more than a month ago she had been a private cruising yacht, but a fortnight in a Boston basin had changed her appearance greatly. Now she was the color of tarnished pewter from stem to stern, from keel to tip of signal pole. Her deck was bare save for a rapid fire gun at the bow and a three-pounder aft and a gray tender swung inboard amidships. Below, however, something of her former magnificence remained in the form of mahogany and egg-shell white and gold lines, but curtains and soft cushions and similar luxuries had been sternly abolished. She carried a personnel of fourteen, Naval Reserves all, for the Wanderer was listed as Number 167 of the Coast Patrol. Of the fourteen, two were commissioned officers, Lieutenant Hattuck and Ensign Stowell, five were petty officers and the rest were seamen, if we except that worthy and popular personage "Spuds," whose real name was Flynn and whose rating was that of ship's cook of the fourth class.

The commander was an ex-Navy man, his junior a yachtsman of experience. The chief machinist had come from a Great Lakes freighter and his mate had run a ferry in Portland Harbor. Some of the others were ex-service men, but the electrician was just out of the Radio School and three of the seamen had been swinging their hammocks in the barracks at Newport a month ago. Of the latter trio, one was a well set-up youth of barely eighteen, with a pair of very blue eyes and a good-looking face set in rather serious lines. There was something about the lad that impressed one with a sense of ability and determination; or perhaps it was a number of things, such as the firm molding of his chin, the straight set of his mouth, the back-throw of his broad shoulders or the quiet, direct way of speaking. In the ten days that the Wanderer had been on duty most of its occupants had come into nicknames, or had brought them with them, and this boy was known as "Chatty." It was Cochran, GM2C, who had labeled him the first night at sea when, clustered in the tiny forward cabin that served as forecastle, those off watch had proceeded to get acquainted. The boy, a second class seaman, had had so little to say that the gunner's mate had finally turned on him with a sarcastic: "Say, Jack, you're a chatty guy, aren't you? Come across with a few words, just to show there's no hard feeling!" For the rest of the evening Cochran had addressed him as "Chatty" and the nickname had stuck. Now, aside from the officers, it is doubtful if anyone aboard knew the boy's real name.

That one at least of the officers did was proved presently when Ensign Stowell turned from listening to Cochran's lecture on the mechanism of the bow gun delivered to "Spuds," Hanson, radio man, and Jaynes, chief machinist, and stopped in the lee of the deck-house where "Chatty" was leaning against the life-buoy that hung there and gazing thoughtfully across the sun-flecked water to the distant green expanse of Nantucket.

"Well, Troy," said the Ensign, "seen any periscopes yet?"

Sighting a periscope was an over-used joke in the patrol service those days, but it usually brought a smile, just as it did now.

"Not yet, sir. I'd like to."

The officer laughed. "By Jove, so would I! But I guess you and I'll have to cross the briny before we have any such luck as that. You came from the Newport Station, didn't you? What do they say there about getting across? The Reserves, I mean."

"A good many have gone, sir. There was a detail of seventy left the day I did. They were to go to Halifax and board a transport for the other side. Nothing was known beyond that, but the general idea was that they were to be sprinkled around the destroyers over there."

The officer sighed. "I've done my best to make it, but this is what I drew. Oh, well, something may happen even here. You know the Smith's men stick to it that they dodged a torpedo off the Maine coast the other day."

The boy smiled again, and the Ensign, watching, chuckled. "Just my idea," he agreed, although the other hadn't spoken. "Still, it would be something to even think you saw a 'fish,' eh? There'd be a dime's worth of excitement in that! How did you happen to go into the Reserves, Troy?"

"I wanted to get into action, sir, and the folks I talked with thought I'd get there quicker if I enlisted in the Reserves than in the Navy. I'm not so sure now, though. Maybe I made a mistake." The Wanderer called gruffly twice to a tug ahead and the tug unhurriedly replied. Ensign Stowell spoke to the man at the wheel, through the open door of the house, and turned back again.

"Blessed if I can tell you," he answered. "Looks to me, though, as if they were going to need every man they can get before this shindy is over. Well I hope they'll shove me over before long! I didn't count on serving in a two-by-twice motor boat. Have you been to sea much?"

"I made two trips on a sailing vessel, sir, with my father. The last time was in the Fall. The Germans got her."

"Got her! You mean sank her? Where was this? What ship was she?"

"The Jonas Clinton, sir. We were shelled about live hundred miles from the coast on the voyage back."

"The Clinton! Of course, I remember that! So you were the captain's son that was picked up by a British destroyer, eh? I remember reading about it. That was in November, wasn't it?"

"October, sir: the sixteenth when we were picked up. They got the schooner about midnight of the fourteenth."

"Yes, yes, they found four of you in a small boat——"

"Five, sir, and a dog."

"Was it five? I remember about the dog. The papers made a sort of hero of you, didn't they? Had you risking your life to get the dog off, or something."

"The papers," replied Nelson Troy gravely, "printed a good deal that wasn't so. I couldn't very well leave Pickles! behind, you see. And I guess there wasn't much danger."

"But, I say, Troy, your father!" The ensign's voiced dropped sympathetically. "He was lost, wasn't he?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'm sorry I rattled on so about it! I'd forgotten that. By Jove, I don't blame you for wanting to get a whack at those murderers! You had a hard time, boy. Was your father killed outright?"

Nelson's eyes closed slightly and two vertical creases appeared above his straight nose. "I don't think so, sir. You see, they couldn't find him. Mr. Cupples, the mate, thought he might have been forward when the first shell struck and been knocked overboard. And I suppose that's the way it was, but dad was a good swimmer, and unless he was wounded first I don't see why we didn't find him. That shell cleaned out the forecastle and killed five of the crew, but it couldn't have hit anyone on deck, as I figure it. Dad might have been standing square over where the shell burst, perhaps. It's a sort of a mystery, sir, and I don't know what to think, only—somehow—I can't make up my mind that he's dead."

"Perhaps not," replied the other thoughtfully. "It's just as well to keep on hoping. He may turn up some day. Still, there's this to consider, Troy. If he was knocked into the sea and was picked up you would have heard from him long before this."

"Unless he was picked up by the U-boat that attacked us," answered the boy quietly.

"By the U-boat? Why, yes, that's possible, of course. Do you know whether she searched the schooner before she sank her?"

"We couldn't be sure, sir. She didn't show any lights, of course, but it was sort of half moonlight, and after we'd rowed off about two miles we thought we saw something approach the schooner. We didn't stay around long, because we were afraid they would see us and start shelling."

"I see. But you stood by the ship long enough to have rescued your father if he had been afloat, eh?"

"Yes, sir, we rowed around for about fifteen minutes. Then the shells were getting pretty thick and the sailors wouldn't stay any longer so we rowed out of range. That's what I don't understand. If dad wasn't on board, and Mr. Cupples says they searched all over for him, he must have been in the water. But we couldn't find him there, and——" The boy's voice trailed into silence.

The ensign laid a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "He might have been there, just the same," he said hopefully. "Stranger things have happened. I don't suppose he was wearing a life-belt."

"No, sir, none of us were. We didn't really expert any trouble, although dad had his mind on it that night. I remember his saying he'd be easier when we were out of the submarine zone. But I no more expected what happened than—than nothing at all!"

"Of course you didn't! Who would? Oh, wait till we get a shot at them! We've got a lot of scores to pay off, Troy, and, by the Great Horned Spoon, we'll do it I Now I understand why you're so eager for service, Troy, and I hope you'll soon get across where things are happening. I know that we're taught that revenge is sinful, but——"

The ensign shook his head.

"I don't think it is exactly revenge I want," replied Nelson thoughtfully. "Killing a thousand Germans wouldn't bring dad back, if he's really—gone, but things like that aren't right, sir, and I'd like to do my share in stopping them. No nation should be allowed to act like a pirate, to attack neutral ships on the high seas and murder defenseless men. But of course you can't teach nations of that sort by just talking to them; you've got to hurt them first. That, as I figure it, is why we've gone into this war, sir. Anyway, I guess it's why I've gone into it."

"Right! 'For the Freedom of the Seas!' That's our motto, and before we're done we'll write It big over every ocean, Troy. And across the sky we'll write 'Humanity!'" The ensign ceased abruptly, smiled as though at his own earnestness, and nodded. "Good luck, Troy. You've got the right idea, son."

He passed aft and disappeared down the companion that led to the officers' quarters, leaving Nelson again to his thoughts. But after a moment he shook them off, left the lee of the bridge and went forward. Cross Rip Light Ship was nearly abeam now and Martha's Vineyard was coming fast across the flashing water. Staples, seaman gunner, was lavishing good vaseline on the bow gun and singing a song as he worked. He broke off at Nelson's approach and nodded gayly.

"Think I'll ever have a chance to point this little toy, Chatty?" he asked. "Say, wouldn't it surprise those chaps on the light ship to drop a shell alongside? I'd like to do it just to see 'em jump I What's on the luff's mind today, do you think?"

"I don't know," replied Nelson. "We're making for New Bedford, though. There was a lot of sizzling in the radio room an hour ago."

"Maybe someone saw a porpoise," hazarded Staples. "And this is what I left a happy home for! Well, it's a line, free life, with nothing to do but work. There, if anyone finds any rust on that gun it won't be my fault. Isn't it most time for grub?"

"Pretty near, but I guess they'll wait till we're at anchor."

"Great Scott! What's the the big idea? Don't they know I'm hungrier than a shark? Anchored be blowed! Why, that'll be the middle of the afternoon!"

"Not at this rate, Lanky. We're doing twenty and New Bedford's only about thirty-five miles."

"Yeah, and it's seven bells now," replied Staples disconsolately. "Some folks haven't any heart at all. I'm so near starved I could eat that grease!"

"I guess that would fetch about five dollars in Germany," said Nelson, "if what we hear is so. They'd probably butter their bread with it."

"It's a sight better spread than they deserve," grunted the gunner. "Axle grease is what those criminals ought to have. Help me with this jacket, will you?"

Nelson lent a hand and the canvas covering was drawn back over the gun and laced tight. Staples wiped his hands thoughtfully on a bunch of waste. "Know what I'd rather have happen than a plate of beans and a quart of coffee, Chatty?" he asked, gazing westward over the plunging bow. Nelson didn't and said so. "Well, I'd rather see a U-boat come up right over where that gull's dipping. That's my rather."

"You're likely to see it," laughed Nelson.

"Why shouldn't I?" demanded the other. "What's the use of us fellers kiting around here if there's never going to be any fun? Mark my words, Chatty, some day you're going to be surprised. Government isn't paying us wages to give us sea trips. Not by a long shot! We're here because we're needed here. It's Lanky Staples that's telling you!"