Sea Stories

The Rival Life-savers

It was February, the year after the war. The month had been cold and stormy. Frequent and sudden squalls had kept everybody on the alert. For over two months the United States frigate Macedonian (she once had H.M.S. prefixed to her name, by

the way) had been facing the bad weather, that had ranged from the Bermudas as far to the eastward as the Bay of Biscay. It was blowing great guns on this particular morning, and blowing with that promise of thick weather that seamen learn to recognize so readily. Not two miles away an English frigate was seen coming grandly along as she shortened sail. It did not require the aid of the falling barometer or the sight of the thick black clouds gathering to the northeast, to prove that they were in for it again. Two men were on the Macedonian's main topgallant yard. They were trying to spill the wind out of the sail that was standing straight up above their heads like a great balloon. "Confound this business, anyhow," grunted the older man. "Did you ever see such an evil-acting bit of rag in your life?" He pounded into the struggling canvas, as if he could sink his blunt fingers in the folds and obtain a better grasp. But the wind had firm hold on it, and had filled it so taut that it was struggling and moving like the body of a living thing. "Hold hard!" suddenly exclaimed the younger man; "I see what's the matter." Just the second before he spoke, the leech of the topgallant sail had caught over the end of the yard arm. He lay out on the yard to clear it, his loosened hair and his big collar flapping across his face. The elder man shouted something to him, probably in warning; but the sails were making such a thunder of it that his words could not be heard. When the leech was cast loose, the yard gave a heavy pitch, the sail gave a jump that tore it from the hands of the men nearer inboard, and the young fellow, whose balance was upset by the sudden movement, lost his hold and fell back with a sudden cry of fright. He caught at one of the beckets as he slipped; but it carried away, and down he went, striking the water within a few feet of the frigate's side. The officer of the deck, who had been roaring up angry imprecations to the "lazy lubbers" on the yard to "make haste and get in that sail," jumped back toward the wheel. Carrying the press of canvas she was then under, the Macedonian was making not far from thirteen or fourteen knots, and almost directly before the wind. It was no laughing matter to bring her up all standing, as it were; and though men were jumping here and there, hauling and heaving with the added strength that comes from the dread cry "Man overboard!" it was almost five minutes before the great ship had headed up, and during that time she had left the spot where the poor lad had gone down, by a mile and more. The Lieutenant, when he had given his first order, had thrown overboard one of the boat's gratings, and this had been followed by one of the chicken coops on the forecastle. With the squall coming down upon her, and the stiff wind increasing every minute, the Macedonian lurched up and down, almost burying her nose in the roaring, tumbling sea. Every one was on deck. "'Tis no use trying to lower away a boat now, Mr. Edwards," observed Captain Stewart. "'Twould be only risking the lives of brave men. Stand by for a few minutes and keep sharp lookout." Although it was blowing hard, the air was filled with a thick, gray mist, and the sky now appeared to close down upon the water. It was a lonely, fearful place for a man to be out there in the waste of the waters, fighting for his life. It was a lonely, fearful feeling for men to have who must leave him there. And they all knew him well; they liked him, for he was a cheerful, laughing lad. The old sailor who had been on the yard arm with him had descended to the deck. He was telling it breathlessly to the men gathered about him. "Why," said he, "I hollers to him to be careful when the sail fetched away. It was just as if the yard tried to fling him off like that." He snapped his fingers at arm's length. A man who was standing on one of the anchor-flukes well forward suddenly pointed out to leeward. The English frigate, that had been last seen holding a course due west, was now, evidently, engaged in making all snug for the coming blow. She had heaved to, and was now lying with topsail aback, rearing and plunging,--sometimes pitching down until her hull was completely hidden in the hollows of the seas. The mist had blown away. A clear, shadowless, distance-killing light succeeded it. It was hard to tell whether the frigate was two miles off, or whether she was a little toy boat in the near perspective. But the heaving water that lay between the ships, crossed with its lines of white, rolling foam, was no toy thing. It had an angry, spiteful look. It was pitiless, and yet had lost the dread that it held when hidden in the treacherous half-gloom of the mist. But why had the English frigate come up into the wind? All hands had rushed to the side. It was almost as if they had forgotten the frightful cause of their own delaying. Soon all was understood. There was a tiny, white speck drifting to the southward of the English vessel. It would heave to the top of a great sea and disappear again. "One of their boats is out!" roared the man who was standing forward, using his hands for a trumpet. The officers on the quarter-deck had now sighted both the vessel and the little object far astern of her. The First Lieutenant was squinting through the glass and talking excitedly. "Egad, sir, I can make it out; there's a man clinging to a cask or something just to leeward of that cutter. There are eight good men in that boat, I can tell you," he added, "but I think they have lost sight of him." The lashings of the whaleboat, which most American vessels carried, had been cast loose some time before. The Captain touched the Lieutenant on the arm. "He's as near to us as he is to them; call away the whaleboat," he said quietly; and then, turning to a young, boyish-looking officer,--one of the senior midshipmen,--he said, "Mr. Emmett, you will go with her." "Clear away the bowlines!" roared the Lieutenant. "Man the after-braces! Be lively, lads--lower away!" With a cheer, the men of the crew--picked oarsmen and ex-whalemen they were--Nantucket and New Bedford fellows--jumped to the side. The long, narrow boat was lowered with half her crew in her. The other half slid down the falls. Mr. Edwards leaned over the side, holding his hat on with both his hands. "Mr. Emmett," cried he, "you bring back that man; don't let the Britishers beat you!" The midshipman looked up, touched his cap, and grinned. The man handling the steering-oar was a grizzled, hawk-nosed down-easter. Many a time had he brought his boat up to the side of a whale when the seas were running high, and when it would have appeared that a small boat could not have lived, much less fight the greatest, strongest beast to be found on all this earth. The excitement of the moment cut into the blood of the oarsmen. They were going down with the wind, and they fairly jumped the boat from one wave-crest to the other. But occasionally, as a heavier sea would come up astern of them, they would race down and lag for an instant in the hollow until lifted by the next. The tall Yankee must have been reminded of the time when he raced with the other rival boats in order to get fast with the harpoon first, for he began encouraging in the old whaleman fashion:-- "Give way, my lads, give way! A long, steady stroke now! Do ye love gin? A bottle of gin to the best man!" forgetting that he was no longer the first mate of the old Penobscot. "Oh, pile it on while you have breath! pile it on! On with the beef, my bullies!" The men, with set teeth and straining backs, were catching together beautifully, despite the fact that the wind threatened to twist the oars out of their grasp. The little middy, sitting in the stern sheets, had folded his arms; but he was swinging backward and forward to every lift and heave, with the same strange grin upon his face. And now the steersman caught sight of the English boat as she hove up to the top of a great wave. It was plain that they had lost sight of the object they were seeking. "Oars!" cried the steersman. The men ceased rowing, and watched him with anxious and nervous eyes, waiting for the word to get down to it again. "There he is, Mr. Emmett! about a half a mile away there, sir, almost dead ahead! And egad, they see him too!" for just as he had spoken the English sweeps had caught the water with a plash. Once more the boat-steerer's tongue was set awagging. It was a race now down the two sides of a triangle; a fair race and a grand one. "Every devil's imp of you pull! No talking; lay back to it! Now or never!" yelled the steerer. The heavy English cutter, with her eight men at the oars, had caught the fever too, and the five rowers in the Yankee boat had work cut out for them. The midshipman was now standing up, balancing himself easily, with his legs spread wide apart. "We'll have that man, my lads!" he shrieked. "Only think he's ours, and there's no mistake, he will be ours! Give way, give way! Now we have him!" The man could now plainly be seen, clinging to the top of the chicken coop. "It's Brant, of the starboard watch, sir," said the steersman, leaning over. "Harkee, he sees us." It appeared as if both boats would arrive at the same moment, when suddenly a most surprising thing occurred. The man waved his hand, and leaving the small but buoyant raft that had supported him, he plunged head first into the water and struck out for the whaleboat hand over hand. The bow oar leaned over and caught him by the back of the shirt. A quick heave, and he was landed between the thwarts. "I hated to spoil a good race, messmates," he panted, "or I'd come off to you before." The English cutter was now alongside. The men in the two boats were looking at one another curiously. "Thank you very much for your trouble," cried Midshipman Emmett, taking off his hat, and having to shout his words very slowly and distinctly in order for them to be heard. "Nothing at all, I assure you, sir," came the answer from the young man in the other boat. "We saw the whole thing happen, and would have been glad to pick him up for you. This is Mr. Farren of the Hebe." "This is Mr. Emmett of the Macedonian. Good day!" "Good day!" The stern way of the English vessel had carried her well to leeward of the boats; the frigate had come about, and was slowly bearing down to pick the whaleboat up. Amid great cheering she was hoisted in at the davits. The hero of the occasion saluted the quarter-deck and walked forward through the crowd, whose anxiety had now changed to merriment. At last he saw the old sailor who had been on the main topsail-yard with him. "Bill," said he, "what was you sayin' when I left the yard to umpire that thar race?"

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