For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

THE LONELY REEF

THE Wanderer slid into New Bedford shortly after one o'clock, fluttered a greeting to the torpedo boat Hollis, lying off Fort Point, and dropped anchor in the inner harbor. There was liberty when dinner was over, and Nelson and a half-dozen others spent the afternoon exploring the streets of the old whaling town. The Wanderer replenished fuel tanks and stole out again shortly after dusk, just as the lights were appearing along shore. A group of Jackies on the after deck of the Hollis cheered and shouted raillery as the little patrol sped past so close one could have counted the chevrons of their rating badges. Billy Masters, apprentice seaman, stopped by the forecastle break, where Nelson was on lookout duty, and jerked his head in the direction of the receding torpedo boat.

"I suppose those fellows think a lot of themselves because they're on a regular boat, eh? Bet you anything you like, Chatty, we have a lot more fun than they do."

"Shouldn't wonder," answered Nelson. "What's that thing bucking along there? Looks like a mine-layer, doesn't she?"

"Yes. What do you suppose she was before they patched her up and painted her gray? Looks like a little old tub that used to run excursions on the river when I was a kid back home."

"Where was that, Billy?"

"Portsmouth, Ohio. Ever there?" Nelson shook his head while his gaze followed the little blunt-nosed, high-decked steamer that came wallowing toward them from the open sea. Billy Masters sighed. "It's a swell little burg, and I wish I was back there," he murmured. Then, as the Wanderer's search light, atop the wheel-house, jumped Into life and sent a long inquiring path across the darkening water, he added more cheerfully: "If I was, though, I'd want to be back here again, so what's the use?"

The approaching craft bellowed once hoarsely and the Wanderer replied. "Sounds like she had a sore throat," muttered Billy. "Say, what's up tonight?"

"Why?"

"Oh, the skipper's sort of excited like and so's the other. And Spuds says the Hollis's captain was aboard this afternoon and he and our skipper and the junior were chinning for about an hour down there. And Ole's wearing a sort of wise look on his ugly Swedish mug like he knew a lot more'n he wanted to say. Let me tell you something. I don't believe Ole can hear a blamed thing on that wireless of his. He just puts that black thing around his head and frowns and writes on pieces of paper. Then he takes 'em in to the skipper and the skipper, being in the plot, nods his old head and opens a little book and makes believe to decode the silly stuff. Why, it stands to reason that an aerial no bigger' n a back-yard clothes line can't pick up much!"

Nelson laughed. "You tell that to Ole. He'll drop you overboard."

"Huh, I ain't afraid of any tow-headed galoot like him, even if he did go to school for three months and has doodaddies on his sleeve. I could. have been a radio man if I'd wanted to."

"Why didn't you?" asked Nelson.

"'Cause when there's something doing I want to be in it. No sitting around on a stool for mine, getting my head knocked off and jabbing out, 'Shell has just entered radio room, killing operator. Good bye!' That may be heroic and get your picture in the paper, but it don't get you much else!"

The Wanderer left Dumpling Rock Light on her starboard and swung her bow more to the west By nine o'clock, down in the "forecastle," they were predicting a visit to New York or Brooklyn, and Perry, first-class shipfitter, was licking his lips in anticipation.

"I've got friends down there," he said, half closing his eyes and swaying ecstatically back and forth on the edge of a bunk in time to the rocking of the boat. "They'll ask me to dinner. There'll be chicken, like as not, and lots of pie. Maybe two or three kinds of pie." He looked around to see how the announcement affected the others and was disappointed. "Maybe lemon pie with suds atop," he added desperately.

Lanky Staples grunted. "You can have all the pie you want," he said. "Me for a real feed on Broadway. I know the place, too. A stack of wheats as high as that——" He held his hands some fourteen inches apart—"and about a pint of maple syrup, and two or three cups of real coffee, not the stuff Spuds gives us——"

"Yeah, I know the place, too," interrupted the cook sarcastically. "You get a couple of flies in the syrup an' they don't charge you a cent for 'em! You wouldn't know good coffee from a cup of bilge water, you long-legged giraffe!"

"Think we'll get liberty?" asked Endicott longingly. "I got folks out to Flatbush."

"We won't get that much liberty," replied Lanky, gently. "Maybe we'll get a day. Why don't you telegraph your folks to come half-way and meet you?"

Their dreams of the gayety of New York were doomed, however, to a sad awakening. When the morning watch went on at four the Wanderer was swinging at anchor in a choppy sea with nothing in sight in the gray darkness but a stretch of ghostly breakers a half-mile to the west. As the light grew a beach became visible beyond the surf and, finally, a low island stretched before them. Nelson, coming on deck at eight, viewed it curiously. It appeared to be about a half-mile long and, he guessed, scarcely more than a quarter of that in width. At no place did it rise more than ten feet above the ocean. In the gray, cold light of a cloudy day it was about as desolate and lonely a spot as one could imagine. Not even a hut broke the monotony of the sky-line, but at the farther end a cluster of low, wind-tossed, misshapen trees made a darker blot on the expanse of sand and beach grass. There were low bushes here and there; bayberry, probably, and sweet-gale; and in one place, not far from the Wanderer's unquiet anchorage, a ledge cropped a few feet above the sand. Gulls fluttered over the island, but they constituted the only signs of life.

"What do you make of it, Chatty?" asked Cochran, gunner's mate, ranging alongside. Nelson shook his head. "Doesn't look as if we'd come all this way to picnic on the beach, does it?" He looked around in all directions. "Where are we? That's what I'd like to know. We've been pretty well over these waters for a week or so, but I'll swear to goodness I never saw that cheerful looking reef before."

"Nor I," said Nelson. "It must be one of the Elizabeths, don't you think?"

"No, I know the whole bunch: Nonamesset, Uncatena, Naushon, Pasque and Nashawena, Cuttyhunk and Penikese. Sounds like something out of Longfellow, don't it? 'Hiawatha,' maybe. No, we're further from New Bedford than any of those. We didn't drop anchor until about four bells, and we were doing fourteen most of the time. There's some sand banks like that—" he nodded at the desolate expanse before them—"south of the Vineyard, I've heard. They get down on the charts as reefs and then the sea kicks a lot of sand over them and they're islands. And maybe ten years after that they're just rocks again. A couple of good gales tears them all to pieces. This one looks as if it had been here quite a spell, though." Cochran broke the wrapper of a package of chewing gum, proffered it to Nelson and stowed a piece between his teeth. "Anyway," he went on when he had got the gum working nicely, "you can be sure of one thing, Chatty. We didn't come down here and slop around half the night in this nasty chop without some reason. Maybe that island's one of these German submarine bases you read about."

Nelson smiled. "They might have chosen a more cheerful one, I'd say. We'll find out pretty quick, I guess, for there's the Old Man now."

But the solution of the mystery was not due to be solved just yet. Lieutenant Hattuck, very erect and smart in his uniform, walked forward to the bridge. Then he and the junior made their way to the bow and, standing by the gray-jacketed gun, examined the shore through their glasses and talked together for several minutes. Green, Ole Hanson's relief, climbed out of the wireless room and approached them with a fluttering wisp of paper in his hand. Action followed closely after the captain had cast his eye over the message and handed it to the ensign. Up came the anchor and the Wanderer crept slowly along the shore, the ensign himself at the wheel, and Quartermaster's Mate Jones keeping an anxious watch at the how. When nearly opposite the easternmost end of the island, which curved slightly to the south, the small boat was ordered lowered and Mr. Stowell, yielding the wheel, gave his orders.

"Jones, pick four men for a landing party. Arm with automatics."

"Yes, sir. Do I go along?"

"Certainly. Hustle now."

"Right, sir! Staples, Troy, Endicott and Masters! Get a jump on! Don't forget your cartridge belts!"

Four minutes later they were in the little boat, her tiny engine sending her bobbing crazily over the gray-green water. Ensign Stowell was in the stern sheets and Jones brooded over the engine. They beached near the little forest of twisted trees, leaped into the shallow surf and carried the anchor ashore.

"Draw your bean-shooters," directed the officer, "but keep the safety on. Come ahead, keep down pretty well and don't talk."

It was the matter of eighty or a hundred yards to where the straggling trees began. They climbed quietly up the sloping beach, the ensign leading, and paused where the high tides of winter had left a ridge of sand, loosely clad with grass and wild pea. Before them there lay the wind-rippled surface of the island, flat and unbroken save for the patch of trees, and beyond, the sea again. Nelson thought he could discern what looked like land where the horizon lay, but could not be certain. What he was certain of was a tiny dark speck that bobbed about some two miles away to the north and could be nothing else than a boat. Mr. Stowell gave a grunt and pulled his glasses from their case and leveled them. After a long moment he returned them, faced the Wanderer, circling slowly about off the beach, and waved an arm semaphore fashion. The captain, watching from the deck, waved an answer. A minute later, with her engines humming, she was standing straight out to sea.

The officer led the way again, bearing to the right until they were well hidden from the approaching boat by the trees. Then they went forward and gained the edge of the tiny forest and, following the example set by the ensign, threw themselves down on the sand amidst the crackling branches of bayberry bushes to which a few sere leaves and odorous gray berries still clung. The dwarfed trees ahead were pitch pine, although here and there a leafless wild cherry was struggling for existence. Ensign Stowell conversed in low tones with the quartermaster's mate and alternately peered through a vista in the grove at the coming boat and cast roving glances about the trees, much, thought Nelson, as though he were looking for birds' nests!

"What's the game, Chatty?" muttered Endicott, pulling himself nearer. "German spies?"

"Don't know. Tell you later."

"Much obliged. I say, look where the Wanderer is!"

Nelson looked. The patrol boat was a good three miles south and was now running eastward at half-speed, presenting a fine imitation of a person minding his own business. Evidently, concluded Nelson, the plan was to keep out of sight until the persons in the small motor boat—for that was what the craft now showed itself to be—had landed. Then, doubtless, the Wanderer would turn back. But he was still puzzled, for the patrol boat could, naturally, run rings about the smaller one or, if it pleased her, blow her clean oat of the water. There was, then, evidently more to the operation than just capture.

The approaching motor boat was making slow work of it, and hard, for the sea was decidedly rough today for such small craft; but she came pluckily on, bobbing about like a cork and, doubtless, shipping water with every toss. They could see her occupants now, three men at least, and possibly four. The smoke from the exhaust left a trail of lighter gray against the gray of sea and sky. Masters was examining his automatic with a nonchalance that didn't deceive anyone.

The motor boat made straight for the beach on the north side of the island, which today was also the lee side. Nelson could see her no longer now, but he heard Ensign Stowell say softly to Jones: "Four of them. They're all there, then."

Even when the boat had grounded and her crew had sprung up to their knees in water and waded ashore with the painter they were too fat off for their features to be distingished. Nelson squirmed a bit to the right and found a place from which he could watch. The quartette pushed an anchor into the sand well above the tide, and Nelson saw that a second one had been dropped from her stern. The boat was surprisingly tiny for such a sea and he was forced to credit the unknown crew with a good deal of courage. They were coming up the rise of the further beach now, one carrying a square wooden box that looked heavy as it humped against his leg at each stride. They walked in single file, the man with the box bringing up the rear. The leader was not tall, but there was something authoritative in the way he carried his squarely-built figure. In spite of the black rain-coat which shrouded him he looked military. The others, similarly protected from the weather and the sea, were distinctly civilian.

Just as they left the beach and gained the higher level of the island the leader stopped abruptly and pointed to the eastward. Nelson, following the direction of his hand, descried the Wanderer, running northward now, almost an indistinguishable gray object against the sea. After a minute the four men came on, walking a little more hurriedly, and entered the wood on the further side. For a moment or two they were visible between the trees, and then they disappeared as suddenly as though the earth had swallowed them!

Jones turned and looked inquiringly at Ensign Stowell, but the latter shook his head.

"Wait," he said softly.