"Of course," said Eric, "we used to have that experiment in our high school chemistry."
"We did. But do you remember just how much oxygen a lamp has to have?"
"No," the boy was forced to admit, "I've plumb forgot."
"A safety lamp will go right out with less than seventeen per cent. of oxygen, while a man can live fairly comfortably on fifteen or sixteen per cent. So the flickering out of a lamp is a sure sign that the danger line's not far off."
"It's a gentleman, too, then," said Eric with a laugh.
"Yes," the other assented dubiously, "but there's less margin. Now, 'white damp,' or carbon monoxide, is a horse of a different color. That's the real danger, Eric. Pretty nearly all the cases of poisoning in mines are due to 'white damp.' Just the other day, in Pennsylvania, two hundred men were killed—whouf!—just like blowing out a match. But 'white damp' hasn't got any effect on the flame of a safety lamp. If anything, it may hit it up even a trifle brighter. So the lamp isn't any good. That's where the mice come in."
"Mice? I thought you said canaries!"
"We use both mice and canaries. When you haven't got a canary, take a mouse."
"Which is the better?"
"Canary! 'White damp' catches him quicker. That means he gives an earlier warning. A canary will fall off his perch in four minutes when the air's only got one-fifth of one per cent, of 'white damp.'"
"And how long could a fellow stand that much of the gas?"
"About ten minutes, without being really put to the bad, though twenty minutes of it would make him mighty sick. You see, that gives a party six minutes clear before any harm's done. Any time a canary gives a warning, if the miners turn back right then and there, nobody'd be hurt. Isn't that a great little alarm, though?"
"It is that," Eric agreed. "But what happens to the canary?"
"Oh, he comes around again in about five minutes. If a bird gets too much 'white damp,' though, he loses some of his value, because he gets immune and can stand almost ten minutes. So you see, Eric, the 'yellow machine with feathers' can be a real help sometimes."
"Great!" said Eric, "I'll always look at a canary with respect after this. But I've been taking you away from the yarn, Ed, with all my questions. You were telling about the drill."
"So I was. Well, as soon as all the men are fitted up and the teams are ready, a signal is given. All the men are examined for their general health, their heart, pulse, breathing and all that sort of thing, and then they are made to get into the special helmet and sent into a smoke-house filled with the worst kind of fumes. They have to be there ten minutes. When they come out, the doctor examines them again. If any man shows poor condition, his team is penalized.
"Then all the lights are fixed up and examined, and there's a sure enough penalty if any one slips up on the lamp test. After that, a team is sent on the run to fetch a miner who is supposed to be lying unconscious in a working. No one knows where he is. The team to find him quickest and bring him back counts one point. Then the unconscious man is supposed to be revived. The team that does that best gets another point and so on."
"Real first-aid stuff," said Eric.
"You bet. We question the miners swiftly on accidents and they have to know bandaging and everything else. Running stretchers in a working that's only three feet or three feet six high isn't any joke."
"Are the galleries as small as that?" said Eric in surprise. "How can you stand up?"
"You can't. In lots of mines the men work all day long and never get a chance to straighten their backs. Then, in a really big drill, a miner is supposed to be imprisoned by a fall of roof. The team has to find him, to inspect the roof, to show how it should be timbered, and to put out a supposed fire in one of the workings. I tell you, a man who has a certificate from the Bureau of Mines as a trained mine-rescue man is trained all right. It was in one of those drills that I got hurt."
"Oh," cried Eric, disappointed, "I thought it was a real accident!"
"It was," his friend answered. "I said it was during a drill, not at one. It was in Central Pennsylvania. The contest was going ahead in good shape, when a chap came tearing down the road in a wagon, his horses on the gallop.
"'Explosion in the Eglinton, Shaft Three!' he called as soon as he got within hearing. 'There's hundreds of men caught!'
"Everybody looked at me. I wasn't a government man, and I was only there because I had trained most of the teams. I'm willing enough to be the whole thing, but after all I've got some gumption, and I wasn't going to take hold of something that needed an experienced man's handling. There was one old operator there, on one of the judging committees. He'd been watching me closely. 'Mr. Barnett,' I said hurriedly, 'will you take charge?'
"I tell you, Eric, you should have seen his face change! He jumped forward with a cheer. With a word here, an order there, in two minutes' time he had that wagon off again with two rescue teams fully equipped, himself leading, and I was heading all the rest of the men on a steady dog-trot to the place. Old man Barnett was a leader, all right!
"When we got to the mine shaft, it was surrounded by women, some crying, but most of them silent. The two rescue crews had been working like fiends, and work was needed, too.
"I didn't see how I could be much use, anyway. The miners were 'way ahead of me. I haven't had enough experience underground. Just the same, as soon as Barnett saw me, he shouted,
"'Down with you, boy!' and down I had to go.
"As I passed him, I said,
"'Mr. Barnett, I don't know much about the practical end of this!'
"'I know ye don't,' he answered grimly, 'ye don't have to. But men always need a leader. Get on down!'
"As soon as the bucket rattled me to the bottom of the shaft, I fixed on my apparatus, ready to start with the rest of my team. I'd been through that mine once and the comment I'd heard at the pit mouth had told me where the trouble was, so we started off boldly.
"We went 'way in and met one of the parties coming out with a stretcher. We were near enough to make signs to them, just visible in the dull gloom of dimly burning safety lamps when, woof! down came a mass of roof. I saw it coming and dodged back, but not quite in time, for a chunk of coal caught my shoulder. It twisted me round so that I fell with my left arm stretched out, and then a big chunk rolled full on me, just above the wrist."
"Yes, quite a nasty smash,—a comminuted fracture, the doctor called it. My boys snaked that coal off and got me up in a hurry, but the party with the stretcher was cut off. That fall of the roof had choked up the passage solid. The men were already at work at it, using their pickaxes like demons. Seeing I couldn't do any good with a broken arm, I ran back for reenforcements."
"Didn't your arm hurt like blazes?"
"I suppose it did, but I don't remember noticing it much at the time. I got back to the mine entrance and steered another gang to where the cave-in had occurred. But what do you suppose I found when we got there?"
"What?" called Eric, excitedly.
"My men were poisoned!"
"You mean they were dead?" exclaimed the boy, horror-stricken.
"No, they were all at work," said the other, "but they were pickaxing the rock in a listless sort of way that I recognized at once. You see, I'd done quite a bit of reading along those lines—Dad was so keen on it—so I could tell at once that they'd had a dose of carbon monoxide, and a bad dose at that.
"'Come back, boys!' I cried. 'Come back! The place is full of 'white damp'!
"But they were a plucky lot of fellows. Their comrades were entombed on the other side of the cave-in and they wouldn't quit. And all the while they were breathing in the fumes."
"So were you!" exclaimed Eric.
"Yes, but I wasn't working. I couldn't do much, with my arm all smashed up, and so I wasn't breathing in as deeply and taking in as much of that stuff as they were. I urged them to come back, but they were Americans, and wouldn't give in as long as there was any hope of rescue.
"Then I ordered them back. I think they thought I was crazy. I picked up a shovel and threatened to smash it across the face of the first man who didn't follow orders. They grumbled, but, after all, they'd been well trained and they knew that they had to do what the leader ordered. The second gang that had come up had its own leader, you see, and he told them to go on. That made my men all the harder to handle, but I brought them back.
"Just as we got near the mine entrance, one of the men collapsed. That gave me an awful scare. I sent one of the men up to tell Barnett, while I ran back into the workings."
"To try to get that second gang back, anyway."
"But wasn't it an awful chance to take, to go back into that stuff?"
"Who bothers about chances?" exclaimed the other. "But I took the canary!"
"I wasn't more than half-way to the gang when the bird began to quiver and just as I reached them, it fell off the perch. I held out the cage. That was all the proof I needed."
"'Guess the kid's right,' the foreman of the gang said. 'Go back, boys.'
"They raised a howl with him the same way that my own men did with me. But he was an old-timer, and without wasting any words, he smashed the foremost of the workers across the jaw. Under a torrent of abuse, the men fell back. I was half-way to the entrance when everything turned black before me. Next thing I knew, I was in the Mine Superintendent's house with a trained nurse."
"White damp?" queried Eric.
"That's what the doctor said."
"What happened to the imprisoned bunch?"
"Old Man Barnett had just reached the entrance to the working with a large rescue party all equipped with breathing apparatus, when I collapsed. He got the trapped men out."
"I should think they'd have been poisoned for fair," said Eric.
"Not a bit of it," his friend replied. "The leak of white damp had all come on the outside of the roof-fall, and there was hardly any of it on the other side. Some of the men were pretty weak from lack of air and that sort of thing, but not seriously hurt. It was the rescuers who suffered."
"How was that, Ed?"
"Three of the five men who were in my gang died," said the other mournfully.
"Great guns! Died?"
"Yes," the young miner said, "poor fellows, they went under. Another man and I were the only ones who got over it."
"Died in saving others! That's sure tough!" There was a pause, and Eric added, "What got you two clear?"
"The other chap had been lying full length on the ground, while working, and as white damp rises, he had breathed less of the gas than the others. I wasn't able to work, so I didn't have to breathe deep." He looked down at his broken arm. "It's a queer thing," he said, "but it was breaking my arm that saved my life."
SNATCHED FROM A FROZEN DEATH
"Father! Father! What do you think?" cried Eric, bursting into the sitting room at breakfast one morning, a couple of weeks after his encounter with his young mining friend, "I'm going into the Life-Saving work right away!"
"What's the excitement?" his father asked, speaking for the rest of the family. "Cool down a bit, my boy, and tell us all about it."
"I've—I've just got a letter from the Captain Commandant," replied Eric, fairly stuttering in his haste to tell the good news, "and he says I can enlist in one of the lake stations until the close of navigation. I'll get some real practical training that way, he says, and then I can take up prep. work for the Academy all winter."
In view of the fact that there had been considerable correspondence between the ruling head of the Coast Guard and Mr. Swift, the old inspector was less surprised than the boy expected. Not for the world would the lad's father have let him think that there had been any consultation about this plan. He wanted the boy to have the sense of being "on his own"!
"I remember now," he said, "you said something about writing along that line a couple of weeks ago."
"I did write, Father, I did want so awfully to get a chance. But I hardly believed that they'd actually let me do it."
"I don't see why they wouldn't. After all you told me about your swimming, they ought to have made a special bid for you," he added smiling.
"You don't mind my going, do you?"
"I'm perfectly willing, my boy," his father said. "I'm sufficiently on to your curves, Eric, to know that it isn't much use trying to pin you down to books while there are a few weeks of summer left. You'll be out of mischief at a Coast Guard station, that's one sure thing. I think I'll take you out to meet old Icchia, the veteran of the Lakes. He holds the record for one of the most sensational rescues in the history of the service. I've often heard your Uncle Jim tell the story, but I won't spoil the yarn for you by telling it myself, I'll let Icchia do that."
"When can we go to see him, Father?"
The old inspector smiled at his son's enthusiasm.
"It happens that I've got to start off on an inspection trip to-morrow, which will take me away for a week or so," he answered, "so, if you have no other plans, we might go to-day."
"I'll get ready now!" cried Eric, jumping up from the table.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," his father said rebukingly, while his mother smiled at the boy's impetuosity, "we won't go until after lunch, that is—if you can wait so long!"
"All right, but isn't it bully!" and, unable to contain himself, Eric launched into a panegyric of the Life-Saving Service, most of the history of which he knew by heart.
The lad's excitement increased tenfold when, that afternoon, they approached the little cottage of the old keeper. It was right on the seashore in an outlying suburb looking out over the peaceful stretch of Lake St. Clair.
"Mr. Icchia," said the old inspector, after greetings had been exchanged, "my boy here is going to join one of the lake stations and, to give him an idea of what the service can do, I want you to tell him the story of that night off Chocolay Island."
"It's a deal like beatin' a big drum," began the old keeper in a quavering voice, "to bid an ol' fellow like me tell of his own doin's!"
"But you're not doing it to show off," Mr. Swift said, "I wouldn't ask you to do that. It's because I know you think a good deal of the Service that I wanted my boy to meet you, and to hear a real story of life-saving told by one of the men who was in it."
"It wasn't so much at that—" the old man began. But the lighthouse inspector interrupted.
"Spin the yarn, Icchia," he said, "it's a poor trick to make a lot of excuses! Besides, it spoils the story."
Now the old keeper had a firm belief in his own value as a story-teller and it piqued his pride to have it thought that he was spoiling a good yarn, so without further preamble he began.
"I don' know what the world is comin' to," he said, after he had filled his pipe and lit it, "but there's no sech winters to-day as there was in my young days. I kin remember, when I wasn't no older'n that bub there, there was more snow in one winter 'n we have in five, now; an' Lake Huron was always friz up. Life-savin' was a lot harder in them days, ye'd better believe me, an' not only in the winter but all year round."
"Why?" asked the boy.
"There wasn't no sech lights then as there is now, for one thing, an' a skipper had to keep his eyes peeled an' his lead goin'. An', for 'nother thing, in the days I'm talkin' of, they was mostly all sailin' craft. Now I'm not sayin' nothin' in favor of steamers—I was raised on an ol'-time clipper. I will say that when a gale ain't too bad, a steamer kin handle herself more easy-like 'n a sailin' craft, when there ain't but a little seaway. But when she's blowin' good an' strong, an' the gale's got more heft 'n a steamer's screws, what use is her machines to her?"
"Not much," said the boy.
"Ye're sayin' it," the old keeper continued. "An' in the ol' days, when steamers first run on the Lakes, they weren't no such boats as ye see now. Our worst wrecks in them days were the steamers. This one, that your pappy wants me to tell ye 'bout, was a steamer an' a three-masted fore-an'-after she had in tow.
"This yarn I'm a spinnin' reely begins down at Marquette Breakwater. It was on the seventeenth day of November, an', let me see, it must have been in 'eighty-six, the same year my youngest was born. The winter had broke in early that year, not with any reel stormy weather, but jest a bunch o' pesky squalls. An' cold! We was in the boat mighty near every day, an' I used ter forget what bein' warm felt like. There was allers somethin' hittin' a shoal or tryin' to make a hole in the beach. It was squally an' shiftin', ye see. An' the mush-ice set in early."
"What's mush-ice?" interrupted Eric.
"Mush-ice," said the old keeper, "is a mixture of frozen spray, an' ice, an' bits o' drift, an' everythin' that kin freeze or be friz over, pilin' up on the beach. It's floatin', ye understan', an', as a rule, 'bout two or three foot thick. Owin' to the movin' o' the water, it don't never freeze right solid, but the surf on the beach breaks it into bits anywheres from the size of 'n apple to a keg. An' it joggles up 'n' down, 'n' the pieces grin' agin each other. It's jest a seesawin' edge o' misery on a frozen beach."
"That's as bad as Alaska!" exclaimed the boy.
"It's a plumb sight worse," the other answered. "I ain't never been no further north 'n Thunder Cape, jest by Nipigon. An' what's more, I ain't goin'! But even up there, the ice freezes solid 'n' you kin do somethin' with it. Mush-ice never gits solid, but like some sort o' savage critter born o' the winter, champs its jaws of ice, waitin' for its prey."
"How do you like that, Eric?" asked his father. "That's some of the 'fun' you're always talking about."
"Can't scare me, Dad," replied Eric with a laugh. "I'm game."
"Ye'll need all yer gameness," put in the old life-saver. "Wait till ye hear the end o' the yarn! As I was sayin', it was in November. The fust big storm o' the winter broke sudden. I never see nothin' come on so quick. It bust right out of a snow-squall, 'n' the glass hadn' given no warnin'. We wa'n't expectin' trouble an' it was all we c'd do to save the boats. Ye couldn't stand up agin it, an' what wasn't snow an' sleet, was spray.
"All mornin' the gale blew, an' in the middle o' the afternoon the breakwater went to bits. The keepers o' the light at the end o' the breakwater lighted the lantern, 'n' you take my word for it, they were takin' their lives in their hands in doin' it. Jest half 'n hour later, the whole shebang, light, lighthouse, 'n' the end o' the breakwater, went flyin' down to leeward in a heap o' metal 'n splinters.
"Jest about that time, some folks down Chocolay way, lookin' out to sea, took a notion they saw what looked like white ghosts o' ships 'way out on the bar. She was jest blowin' tiger cats with the claws out! 'Twa'n't a day for no Atlantic greyhound to be out, much less a small boat. But I tell ye, boy, when there's lives to be saved, there's allers some Americans 'round that's goin' to have a try at it. Over the ice 'n' through the gale, eight men helpin', the fishermen o' Chocolay carried a yawl an' life-lines to the point o' the beach nearest the wreck. Four men clumb into her."
"Without cork-jackets or anything?" asked Eric.
"Without nothin' but a Michigan man's spunk. Well, siree, those four men clumb into that yawl, an' a bunch of others jumped into the mush-ice an' toted her 'way out to clear water. With a yell, the fisherman put her nose inter the gale an' pulled. But it wa'n't no use. No yawl what was ever made could have faced that sea. The spray friz in the air as it come, an' the men were pelted with pieces of jagged ice, mighty near as big 's a bob-cherry. Afore they was ten feet away from the mush, a sea come over 'n' half filled the boat. It wa'n't no use much ter bail, for it friz as soon's it struck. They hadn't shipped more'n four seas when the weight of ice on the boat begun to sink her."
"Fresh water, of course," said Eric. "It would freeze quickly. I hadn't thought of that."
"In spite o' the ice," continued the veteran of seventy Lake winters, "two o' the men were for goin' on, but the oldest man o' the crowd made 'em turn back. He was only jest in time, for as the yawl got back to the edge o' the mush she went down."
"Jest like as if she was made o' lead."
"And the men?" asked the boy eagerly.
"They was all right. I told you it was nigh the beach. The crowd got to the yawl 'n' pulled her up on shore. They burned a flare to let 'em know aboard the wrecks that they was bein' helped an' to hold out a hope o' rescue, but there wasn't no answer. Only once in a great while could any one on shore see those ghosts o' ships 'way out on the bar. An' every time the snow settled down, it was guessin' if they'd be there next time it cleared away, or not.
"Seein' that there was nothin' doin' with the yawl, the crowd reckoned on callin' us in to the deal. We was the nearest life-savin' station to Chocolay bar, an' we was over a hundred miles away."
"A hundred miles!"
"All o' that an' more. We was on Ship Island, six miles from Houghton. As I was sayin', seein' that nothin' could be done from their end, Cap'n John Frink, master of a tug, hiked off to the telegraph office at Marquette, 'n' called up Houghton. That's a hundred 'n' ten miles off, by rail. He told 'em o' the wrecks 'n' said he thought as we could get 'em off if we could come right down. The wires were down between Houghton 'n' Ship Islan' and there wa'n't no way o' lettin' us know. The operators sent word all over, to try an' get a message to us, an' mighty soon nigh everybody on the peninsula knowed that we'd been sent for.
"The skipper of a big tug in Houghton heard about it, jest as he was goin' to bed. He come racin' down to the wharf an' rousted out the crew. His engineer was still on board an' they got steam up like winkin'. The gale was blowin' even worse up our way, but the old tug snorted into it jest the same. Out into the dark an' the snow an' the storm she snubbed along, tootin' her whistle like as if it were the Day of Jedgment. An' if it had been," continued the old man in parenthesis, "no one would've known it in that storm!"
"When did you see the tug?" queried the boy.
"Couldn't see nothin'," was the answer, "we jest heard that ol' whistle toot. One o' the men guessed it was the big tug all right an' wondered if she was ashore somewheres with a tow. But, fust thing we know, she come up out o' the muck o' snow an' sleet an' the ol' skipper bellered to us through a speakin'-trumpet that he was come to take us to a wreck. We snaked the gear on to that tug in about half no time, takin' the big surf-boat an' all the apparatus. The tug was a blowin' off steam, like as if she was connected to a volcaner. I tell you there must have been some fire under them boilers. An' when we started—I'm an old hand, boy, but I'm tellin' ye that I never thought to see Houghton. The ol' skipper sent that tug through at racin' speed like as if it was a moonlight summer night an' he had all the sea-room in a couple of oceans.
"'Air ye goin' to stop at Houghton?' I asks him, sort o' sarcastic, 'or are ye gittin' up speed enough to run on a mile or two after ye hit the shore?'
"'Don't ye worry,' he said, with a short laugh, 'ye c'n tie my ears an' eyes up doorin' a hurricane, 'n' I can smell my way to port!'
"An' I'm tellin' ye he did. Without nary a light nor nothin' to guide him—for the snow was worse 'n any fog—he went full speed ahead. An' when he tinkled that little telegraph bell to the engine room, I was wonderin' if he was within ten miles o' the place. But as that craft slowed down, ye can b'lieve me or not 's you like, she glided up to her own pier like as if it was a ferry-boat in a dead calm.
"'I've got to hand it to you, Cap'n,' I says to him, 'I wouldn't ha' believed it unless I seen it.'
"'That's my end,' say the cap'n, 'I know my work, same's you know yours. I'm bettin' my pile on you fellers makin' good 'most any ol' time.' Made me feel good, all right."
"It sure does make a difference," put in Eric, "when you know that people have confidence in you."
"Right you are, boy," said the old keeper, and continued his story. "That pier was jest a mass o' folks, thick as they c'd stand. An' when they saw the tug with us on board, they cheered, 'n' cheered, 'n' cheered. There was a dozen to grab the lines 'n' make 'em fast, 'n' before she was even tied up, a mob grabbed our boat an' apparatus an' rushed it to the railroad.
"While we was a-comin' over the strait, the superintendent o' the railroad division was got up, 'n' told all about the wreck. He was a spry man, too, 'n' by the time the tug was in, he had orders out to clear the track 'n' a special train was waitin' in the station. She was ready fitted up with a couple of open cars for the boat an' apparatus, an' one coach for us.
"They didn't let us touch nothin'.
"'Keep your strength, men,' the superintendent said to the crew, 'my boys will put your stuff aboard.'
"They did. That boat an' the apparatus an' everything else was aboard that special, jest about as quick as we could climb into the cars. We had a special train all right! She jest whizzed along that track, not worryin' about nothin'. Signals didn't matter, for the track had been cleared in advance. The superintendent had come on the train with us. He'd wired ahead to Marquette, an' when we slowed up there was another bunch in the station to welcome us. The train was covered in ice an' snow, an' the front of the locomotive looked like a dummy engine made out o' plaster o' Paris.
"The station was alive with men, all just on edge with waitin'. They had sleighs but no horses, the footin' was too bad. An' so the boat an' the apparatus-car was put on the sleighs, an' the men dragged it along themselves at a whole of a clip! They wouldn't even let us walk, but toted us along in a sleigh, too."
"Why?" asked Eric.
"To keep us from bein' tired. We needed all the strength we had. An' we made good time, I'm tellin' ye. They carried out the boat an' the cart to the beach an' then their end of it was done. It was up to us, now. An' I tell ye, I was anxious. There was somethin' mighty thrillin' in that wild train ride through the night. I've often run big chances in a boat, but this was different-like. Usooally no one knows what we're doin', but this time, the news was bein' flashed all over the country.
"When we actooally got on the beach it didn't look so bad. The boats were lyin' right on the bar 'bout two hundred 'n' fifty foot, off shore. We rigged the gun, loaded her, 'n' fired. I dropped a line jest abaft the pilot-house, where we figured the men must be waitin'. It was a good shot an' I reckoned that there wa'n't goin' to be no trouble at all. It heartened me right up. We'd got there in time, an' first crack out o' the box, there was a line, right across the steamer. The path o' rescue had been made!
"But there was one thing I hadn't figured on."
"What was that?" queried Eric excitedly.
"The weather 'n' the cold. The seas had come up, over 'n' over that steamer, ontil the decks were one straight glare of ice. There wa'n't nothin' a man could get hold of. If a sailor stepped out on that ice, he couldn't stand, for she was heelin' over to port like the side of a hill. An' the lee bulwark was torn away. Worst of all, the waves kep' a dashin' over 'n' over without stoppin'. Our line wa'n't more'n fifteen feet from the pilot-house, but no one couldn' get to that line without bein' washed off.
"In a way, we'd done all that was necessary. We'd dropped a line where they'd ought to be able to get it. We couldn't know there wa'n't no way for 'em to do it. But when the minutes went by 'n' there was no sign from the steamer, it begun to look bad. If it hadn't been for the ice on the decks they was as good as rescued, but with the way it was, they wa'n't no better off, even with rescue fifteen feet away, than when our crew was a hundred miles off in Ship Island. There wa'n't nothin' for us to do but tackle the job ourselves.
"The fishermen, the ones that had been out in the yawl, came aroun' an' said it couldn't be done. My coxswain agreed it couldn't be done, but we'd do it just the same."
"And you?" asked the boy.
"I jest started gettin' the boat ready," the old keeper said, simply. "It was 'way after midnight, reckon it was nearly one o'clock, an', if anything, the sea was wilder. An' I felt nothin' so cold afore in all my life. The women o' Chocolay, they was out that night, bringin' steamin mugs o' coffee. There's a deal o' credit comin' to them, too, the way I look at it."
"I don't see that they could have done much less," said Eric.
"Maybe aye, maybe no," said the veteran, "but I reckon, no matter how little a woman does, the right kind o' man's goin' to think it's a lot. Well, as I was sayin', I turned to the boys to launch the boat. We got hold of her by the rails an' waded in through the mush-ice, same as the fishermen had done. I tell you, it guv me a big sense o' pride in men like our Michigan fishermen when I tackled what they'd tackled. They hadn't no cork-jackets, and they wa'n't rigged up for it. Their boat wa'n't built for no such work but they didn't stop to think o' their own lives or their own boat. An' a fisherman's boat, like's not, is all he's got to make a livin' with. It makes a man feel good to think there's other men like that!
"That mush reached two hundred yards f'm land. I don't know how them fisher chaps ever got through the ice at all. It took us nigh half 'n hour to make the last hundred yards. When the water deepened so's we could get into the boat, every man's clothes was drenched an' they friz right on to him. Every time we dipped the oars in that mush they'd stick, 'n' onless we'd pulled 'em out mighty fast they'd have friz right there. 'Bout every ten yards we had to chop the oar-locks free of ice an' the only part of our slickers what wa'n't friz was where the muscles was playin'. The cox'n, he looked like one of them petrified men ye read about.
"At last we got through the mush. All the way through it, with the load o' floatin' ice 'n' muck, the sea wa'n't tossin' much. But jest the very minute we got clear of it an' started out, the sea hit us fair. I was pullin' stroke an' it didn't git me so hard, but the cox'n, who was facin' bow, got it full. The wind was dead ahead an' the sea was a-tumblin' in as if there wa'n't no land between us an' the North Pole.
"The blades o' the oars got covered with ice, makin' 'em round, like poles, instead of oars, an' we couldn't get no purchase. I hit up the stroke a bit, exhaustin' though it was, 'n' maybe we made about twenty feet further. She was self-bailin' or we'd ha' been swamped right away. Every sea that come aboard left a layer of ice, makin' her heavier to handle. Then, suddenly, along comes a sea, bigger'n any before, an' it takes that lifeboat 'n' chucks us back on the mush-ice, bang! The shock smashes the rudder 'n' puts us out o' business. I forces the boat ashore for repairs.
"'Too bad,' says the railroad superintendent, to me; 'for a minute, there, I thought you were going to make it.'
"'We jest are goin' to make it,' says I, 'if we have to swim!'
"Then one o' those fisher chaps had a good idee. While we was a-fixin' up the rudder an' gittin' ready for another trip, the rest o' the crowd chops the ice off'n the boat, 'n' off'n the oars. Then this fisher chap I was a tellin' about, he comes back with a can of tallow an' smears that thick all over the boat an' the oars an' our slickers an' near everything that he c'd find to put a bit o' tallow on."
"What was that for?" queried Eric.
"So as the water'd run off, o' course," the old man answered. "It worked, too. In about twenty minutes we was off again, in the mush-ice, jest as afore. We hadn't had no chance to get warm, an' our clothes was wet an' friz. I thought sure some o' the men would be frost-bit. But I guess we was all too tough.
"The second trip started jest the same. As soon as we got out o' the ice a breaker come along 'n' hove that boat 'way up, 'n' then chucked it back on the ice, smashin' the new rudder same's the old one.
"I wa'n't goin' to have no monkey-business with rudders any more, 'n' I yelled to Brown, he was the cox'n,
"'Take 'n oar, Bill!'
"He grabs a spare oar 'n' does all he knows how to steer with that. Again we druv our oars into it an' got out o' the ice, 'n' again it threw us back. We did that five times 'n' then one of the fellers got hurt, when his oar struck a chunk of ice, 'n' we went ashore again. I reckon we'd been at it nigh four hours, then."
"I suppose you hadn't any trouble finding a volunteer?" the boy said.
"We could ha' got nigh every man on the beach. But we took one o' the fishermen who had gone out on his own hook afore. If we was goin' to do any savin' it was on'y fair he should have a share o' the credit. An' then, any chap who was willin' to resk his life in a bit of a yawl in that weather was worth puttin' in a boat.
"So we'd had to make three starts afore we really got away an' clear o' the ice. I never see no such gale in all my days. It was an hour an' more, steady pullin' with every pound o' muscle in the crew, before we got in reach o' the tug. An' then, when we was right up on her, there wa'n't one man aboard who come out to catch a line. We found out why, arterwards. The gale took us by her like we was racin', 'n' the boys had to work like Sam Patch to get back. I guess it took nigh half 'n hour to creep up to wind'ard of her again.
"One o' my crew, a young fellow from Maine, as lively a little grig as ever I see, volunteered to board her. We ran under her bow, an' somehow or other he clumb up on board, I swear I don't see how he ever done it, an' snaked a line round her funnel. I went aboard an' one other o' the crew, a man we used to call Ginger.
"Then we found out why the men aboard the steamer hadn't come out to pick up our line. The door o' the pilot-house was smothered in ice, more'n an inch thick. Every window was friz in. We was sure up against it. We couldn't stand on the glassy deck, 'n' there was no way to get the men out. The surf-boat was a-ridin' twenty fathom behind, we'd let her out on a long line, an' there was another cold wait while we hauled her up an' got an ax out of her. We lashed ourselves fast or we'd ha' gone over the side, sure.
"When Ginger, who was an old lumber-jack, gits the ax, he slides along to the pilot-house, an' starts to chop. He'd been choppin' jest about a minute when along comes a sea, smashes one o' the ventilators an' hurls it along the deck. The cussed thing hits Ginger jest as he's swingin' the ax, 'n' sweeps him overboard.
"The crew in the surf-boat see him go an' they cast off the line an' picked him up. But, with two men shy, it was a full hour afore the boat worked back to place to catch our line. They must ha' pulled like fiends to git thar at all. By the time they'd made it, we'd managed to get through that door an' the crew o' the tug was ready to be taken in the boat. It was jest six hours from the time we landed on the beach at Chocolay before we got the first man ashore."
"And the crew of the schooner?" queried the boy.
"We got them off without no trouble. They was sailors! We jest hove a line aboard 'n' got 'em into the boat. They hadn't suffered much. The schooner was higher on the shoal 'n the tug, bein' lighter, 'n' the men'd been able to stay below. They'd kep' a couple o' lookouts on the job, relievin' 'em every hour shipshape and Bristol fashion."
"How many men did you rescue?" the boy asked.
"Nine men from the steamer 'n' six from the schooner. It was nigh eight in the mornin' before they was all ashore, drinkin' coffee an' gittin' eats. The women o' the commoonity was still on the job. I'm doubtin' if we could ha' ever made it without somethin' like that. We wa'n't any too soon, neither."
"In less 'n an hour after we got 'em ashore the tug capsized 'n' went to pieces. The old schooner stood it out better, but she was pretty much a wreck, too, when the weather cleared. We'd our work to do, 'n' we done it. Jest the same, I've allers had a feelin' as if there was as much to be said for the fishermen, 'n' the train-hands, 'n' the cap'n o' the tug, 'n' all the rest that j'ined in.
"It's the biggest rescue on the lakes, but there's nothin' more wonderful in it to me than the way it shows how everybody gets in 'n' gives a hand when help is needed. Don't ye ever forget, in times o' need, that ye've only got ter call, 'n' some one's goin' to hear. An' ye're like enough ter need help in the life-savin' business. I ain't saying as storms is as bad now as they was, but there's enough of 'em still ter keep any crew right on the jump."
"I'll remember, Mr. Icchia," the boy replied, "and I'll be mighty proud if I can ever do half as well. I'm proud enough, now, just to be given the chance."
The old man knocked the ashes from his pipe on his horny and weather-beaten hand and answered,
"As long as there's life-savin' to be done, there's goin' ter be life-savers to do it. I don' hold with none o' this nonsense ye hear sometimes about the world gittin' worse. If ever I did get that idee, I'd only have to go 'n' look at a surf-boat, 'n' I'd know different. It's a good world, boy, 'n' the goodness don't lay in tryin' to be a hero, but jest in plain bein' a man."
SAVED BY THE BREECHES-BUOY
The last words of the old keeper, "Goodness don't lay in tryin' to be a hero, but jest in plain bein' a man," rang through Eric's mind, many and many a day after, when, on his own Coast Guard station, he had to face some difficulty. His post chanced to be in a somewhat sheltered spot, and thus gave him an opportunity to become a good oarsman. His work with the volunteer corps had made him a first-class swimmer and a fair boatman. The government service, however, he found to be a very different matter. There, efficiency had to be carried to the highest degree.
He snatched every opportunity, too, to get ahead with his studies, and luck came his way in a most unexpected shape. It happened that quite near the Coast Guard station was the hut of a queer old hermit sort of fellow, called "Dan." He had been a life-saver many years before, but in a daring rescue had injured his back, and could never enter a boat again. In those days there were no pensions, so for forty years and more he had made a living by inventing riddles and puzzles, tricks of various kinds, and clever Christmas toys. His especial hobby was mathematical puzzles. He used to drop into the station quite frequently, for he was very popular with the men.
"Dan," said Eric to him one day, "I don't see how you can be so interested in that stuff. It's the bane of my life. I'm nailing as hard as I can to try and get in shape for a Coast Guard exam., and I simply can't get hold of the mathematics end of it."
"Why for not?"
"Don't know enough, I guess," the boy answered. "I'm right up on everything but mathematics, but that gets me every time. I know there's some sense in it, but I can't see it. Everything else I've got to study I can find some interest in, but mathematics is as dull as ditch-water. How you can find any fun in it, I can't see!"
This was like telling a painter that color had no emotion, or a scientist that science had no reasonableness. The old puzzle-maker gasped.
"No fun!" he exclaimed. "It is the mos' fun in the world. I show you!"
Pulling from his pocket a pencil and an old envelope he drew a baseball diamond, and marked the positions of the players. Eric's interest arose at once, for he was a keen baseball fan. As the sketch grew the old man talked, describing a queer entanglement of play.
"Now!" said the old man, "what shall he do?"
The boy, judging from his knowledge of the game, made a suggestion, which the other negatived. As soon as the boy made a guess, the other showed him to be wrong. Eric, really interested in the baseball problem, cudgelled his brains, but could find no way out.
"I show you!" the old man repeated.
Using a very simple rule of algebra, which the boy knew quite well, but giving an application he never would have thought of, Dan brought the solution in a second. Hardly believing that mere mathematics could be of any service in a baseball game, Eric tested the result. It was exactly as the old man had said.
"Gee," he said, "that's great!"
The puzzle-maker smiled, and showed him how mass-play in football was a matter of science, not strength, and how lacrosse was a question of trajectory.
"Not only in games," he said. "'Rithmetic, geometry—in everything. You know Muldoon."
"Sure I know Muldoon," the boy said.
"Have you seen him shoot?"
"With the Lyle gun, you mean? Isn't he a dandy at it?"
"That is what I would say," the old man continued. "How does he fire him?"
"Why, he just fires it! No," he corrected himself, "he doesn't either. I see what you're driving at. That's right, I did see him doing some figuring the other day."
"I teach Muldoon," said the old man. "I show him how to tell how much wind, how to tell how far away a ship, how to tell when a line is heavy or light. He figure everything, then fire. Bang! And the line to bring the drowning men home falls right over the ship. It is?"
"It is, all right," the boy agreed. "Muldoon gets there every time. I always thought he just aimed the gun, sort of naturally."
"It is all mathematics," said the old man. "You have guns in the Coast Guard?"
"Rapid-fire six-pounders," the boy answered. "At least I know that's what the Itasca's got. She's the practice-ship at New London, you know."
"Do you have to learn gunnery?"
"Rather," said the lad. "Every breed of gunnery that there is. You know a Coast Guard cutter becomes a part of the navy in time of war, so an officer has got to know just as much about big guns as an officer in the navy. He might have to take his rank on a big battleship if the United States was at war. You bet I'll have to learn gunnery. That ought to be heaps of fun."
"But gunnery is ballistics," the old man said. "And ballistics is trigonometry. Big gun is fired by figuring, not by looking."
"I'm only afraid," the lad replied, "that I'll never have a chance at the big gun. Everywhere I go, it's nothing but figuring. And I simply can't get figures into my head."
"You really want to learn?"
"You bet I do," said Eric. "I'm working like a tinker at the stuff every chance I get, but I don't seem to get the hang of it somehow."
"If you come to me, I teach you."
"Teach me all I want to know?" said the boy in amazement.
The old man shook his head.
"Teach you to want to know all you have to know. Teach you to like figures."
Eric looked at him a minute.
"All right, Dan," he said, "I'll go you. I've still got some of the money I saved up from my work this summer and I was going to spend part of it on tutoring this winter, anyway. I'll tutor under you, whenever I'm off duty, and if you can teach me to like figures, you're a good one. Any way, your cottage is so near that I can get right on the job if the station calls."
True to his word, a few days later Eric appeared at the tiny little cottage—it was scarcely more than a hut—which was the home of the eccentric old puzzle-maker. The top part of it was a home-made observatory, and the whole building looked a good deal like a large beehive.
"String in the corner," said the old man, after welcoming him. "Get him."
"It's all knotted, Dan," the boy replied, holding up a piece of rope with a couple of dozen strings hanging from it, of various colors, all intertwined.
"Of course he is," the old man replied. "Read him."
"What?" asked the boy.
"Read him," repeated the old man.
"What does it mean?"
"He's what Incas used to count treasure with," the old man said. "He's quipu, a copy of one Cortez found in City of Sun. You like to read what he says?"
"You bet I would."
"Bring him here."
Wondering a good deal at the odd puzzle-maker's manner, for the lad had gone to the cottage in good faith with his books, expecting to work on the problems that were disturbing him, he brought over the knotted quipu.
"Green string means corn," said the puzzle-maker, "because he's the color of growing corn. What you suppose white is?"
"Silver," guessed the boy.
"Right. And yellow?"
"Right, too. And red?"
"Copper?" hazarded the boy.
"Not bad guess," the old man said. "Not copper color, red."
"Red stands for war," said Eric meditatively, then, with an inspiration, "in those days a country was rich if it had soldiers. Does the red mean soldiers, Dan?"
"Soldiers, right," the old man answered. "The Quipucamayocuna—"
"The what, Dan?"
"Knot officers," explained the other, "kept track of him all. They counted tens, single knot meant ten; double knot, hundred. Now read him. Cross-knotting is for groups."
Eric worked for a quarter of an hour and then looked up.
"I've got it," he said.
"What is he?"
"In this town," said the boy, "there were seven regiments of soldiers, I've got down the exact number of men in each regiment. Some had plenty of food in the regimental storehouse, some had only a little. But—if I get it right—there was money belonging to each regiment in a treasure-house, somewhere, like a bank. I suppose they could exchange this for food. And, if I've read it right, there was one regiment which had money but no men. I suppose they were wiped out in battle."
"Very good," answered the puzzle-maker, looking pleased. "You keep accounts, your own money?"
"Of course," answered the boy, pulling out a little diary from his pocket.
"Here, string," said the old man. "Write your week's accounts in quipu."
Thoroughly interested, Eric took up a pile of colored strings, from the corner and started to convert his week's accounting into quipu. He worked for half an hour, but couldn't make it come out right. It proved an exasperating puzzle, because it seemed impossible and yet conveyed the suggestion that there ought to be some way of doing it. Already Eric had so keen a sense of the old man's comments that he hated to say that he couldn't do it. But, after a while, red in the face and quite ashamed, he said,
"I can't do it, Dan."
"No, he is not possible," said the puzzle-maker cheerfully. "That's what I wanted you to find. The quipu is wonderful but he's not wonderful enough, eh?"
"We'd have trouble trying to handle a big modern banking business by it, all right," the boy agreed. "But, Dan, how about this studying I'm supposed to do?"
"You know Latin numerals?" the old man replied.
"Of course!" Eric answered indignantly. "I couldn't even tell the time if I didn't!"
"Write 'Four,'" came the order.
Promptly the boy wrote "IV."
"Now look at watch."
"It's got four ones there," Eric said ruefully.
"The 'IV' form is late," said the puzzle-maker. "I show you something. Copy column of pocket cash-book in Roman numerals, then, without thinking in figures, add up column."
Not in the least understanding what were the old man's ideas the boy did as he was told. It was easy enough to write down the numbers, but when he came to add them up, he found himself thinking of Arabic figures in spite of himself.
"I'm cheating," said Eric suddenly, "I can't help adding up in the old way."
"Good boy," said the puzzle-maker. "I knew that. I show you some more. Simple addition. Write in Roman numerals one billion, seven hundred and forty-two million, nine hundred and eighty-three thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven and eleven-sixteenths."
Although pretty well posted, Eric had a hard time writing down the number and had to ask a lot of questions before he could even write it correctly. Then the puzzle-maker gave him half a dozen figures of the same kind. It looked weird on paper.
"Now add him up," the old man charged him.
The boy started bravely. But he hadn't gone very far before he got absolutely stuck. He wrestled with that sum of simple addition for nearly an hour. At last he got a result which seemed right.
"Put him down in ordinary figures," came the order. "Add him up."
Eric did so, having his own difficulties in re-transcribing from the Roman numerals.
"Are they the same?"
"No," the boy said, "I got the other wrong somewhere."
"S'posin' you had him right," the puzzle-maker said, "it took you hour. Ordinary figures you did him in thirty-two seconds."
"I see," said Eric, "it's another case of wonderful but not wonderful enough, isn't it?"
"Exactly. Here," the other continued, reaching down a manuscript portfolio, "is every kind of numbers ever made. You find that the Hindu—or wrongly called Arabic—numerals are the only ones wonderful enough for modern uses."
Thoroughly interested, the boy sat down with this big manuscript book. Weird schemes of numeration rioted over the pages, from the Zuni finger and the Chinese knuckle systems to the latest groups of symbols, used in modern higher mathematics, of which the boy had not even heard. It was noon before he realized with a start that the morning was gone.
"Oh, Dan!" he said reproachfully, "we haven't done anything to-day."
"Never mind," said the old man, "we get a start after a while."
That afternoon, when the boy settled down to do some work on his own account, he felt a much greater friendliness to the mere look of figures. They seemed like old friends. Before, a figure had only been something in a "sum," but now he felt that each one had a long history of its own. Little did he realize that the biggest step of his mathematics was accomplished. Never again would he be able to look at a page of figures with revulsion. They had come to life for him.
The next morning, Eric found the old puzzle-maker busy with a chess-board.
"Aren't we going to do any work to-day, either?" he asked, disappointedly.
"Soon as I finish," the old man answered. "Get pencil and paper. As I move knight from square to square, you draw."
Shrugging his shoulders slightly, but not so noticeably that the puzzle-maker could see, Eric obeyed. It seemed very silly to him. But as the knight went from square to square in the peculiar move which belongs to that piece in chess, the boy was amazed to find a wonderful and fascinating geometrical design growing under his hand.
"Another way, too," said the old man thoughtfully, the instant the figure was finished, not giving the boy a chance to make any comment. And, without further preface he started again. This time an even stranger but equally perfect design was formed.
"But that's great!" said Eric, "how do you know it's going to come out like that! I wonder if I could do it?"
"Try him," the puzzle-maker answered, getting up from the board. For half an hour Eric moved the knight about, but never got as perfect an example as the old man.
"Are there only those two ways?" said the boy at last.
"Over thirty-one million ways of moving the knight so that he occupies each square once," was the reply. "Every one makes a different design."
"I'll try some this evening," said the boy. "But it's funny, too. Why does it always make a regular design?"
"You want to know? Very well." And the puzzle-maker quietly explained some of the most famous mathematical problems of all time, working them out with the chessmen and the board.
"You know what they call him, magic?" queried the old man.
"Magic! No!" exclaimed Eric pricking up his ears at the word. "Tell me about it, Dan."
"Numbers all friends, live together, work together," the puzzle-maker answered. "I show you." And, taking pencil and paper, he dotted down in forms of squares and cubes rows and rows of figures. "Add him up," he said, "up and down, cross-wise, any way. He all make same number."
"They do, sure enough," said Eric, after testing half a dozen magic squares, "but how do you do it? Do you have to remember all those figures and just where they go?"
"Don't remember any of him," the other answered. "He has to go so."
"But I can't make them come that way," exclaimed the boy, after trying for a few minutes. "What's the trick?"
"All friends," repeated the old man, and in his curiously jolting speech he told Eric the startling links that are found in the powers of numbers. As soon as he had the principle clearly in mind, the boy found that there was no great difficulty in making up the most astonishing magic squares.
As the winter drew on, and calls for help on the stormy waters increased, the opportunities for sessions with the shrewd old mathematician grew fewer, but Eric stuck fast to his promise to spend all the time he could afford with his instructor. He was keenly disappointed that the puzzle-maker showed such an absolute disregard of the actual things the boy wanted to prepare for in his examinations. But Eric had been rigidly trained by his father in the sportsmanlike attitude of never complaining about any arrangement he had made himself, and he paid for his coaching out of his small earnings without a word. In order to make up for what he inwardly felt was lost time, he worked by himself at his books in such few minutes as he was able to snatch from his life-saving duties. And, although he was tired almost to exhaustion, many and many a day, he found that even in that work he was getting along quite well.
Eric could never get his eccentric teacher to look at the books required in his preparatory work. What was more, he had a feeling that he couldn't really be getting much good from his hours spent with Dan, because he enjoyed them so much. Early schooldays had made him associate progress with discomfort.
For example, one day Dan showed him tricks with cards—and then explained the mathematics of it, making the most puzzling mysteries seem only unusual applications of very simple principles. Another day, the puzzle-maker told him of curious problems of chance, by dice, by lotteries, and so forth, and almost before Eric realized what the old man was driving at, the essential ideas of insurance and actuary work were firmly fixed in his mind.
It was not until a couple of weeks before the expected close of navigation that the puzzle-maker said,
"Let me see book!"
Astonished at the now unexpected request, Eric handed him the much bethumbed volume over which he had struggled so hard. The old man skimmed through its pages, nodding his head from time to time and mumbling in a satisfied way. Then, like a man driving in a nail, he pounded Eric with question after question. He seemed to be asking them from the book, but Eric knew that none of the problems had their origin in it, for they dealt with the work he had been doing in the little cottage by the sea. Yet to almost every one the boy returned a correct answer, or at least, one which was correct in its approach. For two long hours the puzzle-maker questioned him, without ever a minute's let up. At the end of it, Eric was as limp as a rag. At last the old man laid down the book.
"When your examination is?" he asked.
"Next June," the boy replied.
"You can pass him now."
Eric stared at the old man with wild surprise in his gaze and with a down-dropped jaw.
"But I haven't even started on the second half of the book," he said. "And I've got to do it all!"
"You pass him now," was the quiet answer. "The second part—you have done him, too. Learn rules, if you like. No matter. You know him. See!"
He showed the very last set of examples in the book and Eric recognized problems of the kind he had been doing, all unwitting to himself.
"Mathematics not to learn," he said, "he is to think. You now can think. To know a rule, to do sum—bah! he is nothing! To know why a rule and because a sum—he is much. You do him."
In the few remaining visits that Eric paid the puzzle-maker, he found the old man's words to be quite true. Having learned the inside of mathematics, its actual workings seemed reasonable. The clew gave Eric the sense of exploring a new world of thought instead of being lost in a tangled wilderness.
Meantime, he had become absolutely expert in every detail of the station. His particular delight was the capsize drill. The keeper had got the crew trained down to complete the whole performance within fifty seconds from the time he gave the order. The boat had to be capsized, every man underneath the boat. Then they had to clamber on the upturned boat, right it again, and be seated on the thwarts with oars ready to pull before the fiftieth second was past. It was quick work, and although only a drill, was as exciting as the lad could wish. Two or three times, one of the men, who wasn't quite as quick as the rest, got "waterlogged" and the crew had to help him up. When that occurred, there was an awful howl.
Once, only once, Eric delayed the drill about two seconds and it was weeks before he overcame his sense of shame at the occurrence. But, before the winter finally closed down, Eric was as able a coast-guardsman as any on the Great Lakes. It was well that he was, for a day was coming which would test his fortitude to the full.
Navigation had been lessening rapidly, and the boy was beginning to think about Thanksgiving Day. They were just sitting down to supper, when one of the men came in with haste.
"Heard anything of a wreck round Au Sable way?" he asked breathlessly.
"No," said the keeper, "what did you hear?"
"Nothin' definite," said the other, "but as I was comin' along a chap stopped me and asked me if I were goin' out to the wreck off Au Sable. He said he really didn't know anything about it, except there was a report that the City of Nipigon was on the rocks near Grand Point."
The keeper jumped up and went to the telephone.
"Anything doing?" he asked, when the Au Sable operator got on the wire.
The chat in the station stopped to hear what the reply might be. Au Sable was the most exposed point on the coast and there was a gale beating in from the northwest.
"You'll let us know, then," said the keeper, and hung up the receiver. "Says he's heard something about a wreck, but nothin' definite," he added, turning to the crew. "Says a boy ran in with the news, but the kid was too excited to give much information."
"Think there's anything in it?" queried one of the men.
"Hope not," said another, "I was out that way day before yesterday an' there's an ice wall there about twenty feet high. I don't know how we'd ever get a boat over it."
"We'd get it over, all right."
"How?" asked Eric interestedly.
"Aeroplane, if necessary," said the keeper laughing.
"No, but really," the boy protested.
"Brute strength and luck, I guess," the other said, "but I'm hopin' that we don't have to go out to-night."
"Me too," added the boy. "I've got some 'trig'"—
The telephone bell rang.
"That's it, likely enough," said one of the men, getting up resignedly and going over to the locker for his oilskins.
"Well," said the keeper, as he took off the receiver. Then, a minute later turning to the men, he repeated to the crew, "'Steamer, City of Nipigon, seven men aboard, burnin' distress signals, on rocks north and by west of Au Sable light, quarter of a mile from land.' Right you are, boys, we're off!"
There was a transformation scene. When the keeper began the sentence, the Coast Guard station had been a scene of peace and comfort with a group of men lounging around a hot fire, some reading, some playing dominoes and others plying needle and thread. But, before the sentence was over, almost every man was in his oilskins, some were just pulling on their long boots, while others, even more nimble, had reached the boat and the apparatus-cart. They were standing by for orders when the keeper joined them.
"She's less'n a quarter of a mile out, boys," he said. "I reckon we'd better try an' get her with the gun. After, if that doesn't work, we can get the boat. But if we can put a line across her right away, it'll be safer an' quicker. I don't fancy handling the boat down any such ice as Jefferson talked about."
The apparatus-cart was out of the shed and started almost before the keeper had finished his orders. Eric, who was no mean athlete, was glad of every ounce of strength he possessed before he had gone a hundred yards. The cart, fully loaded, weighed 1120 pounds and there were seven men to drag it, a fairly good load on decent ground. But the ground was all of eight inches deep in new-fallen snow into which the wheels sank. The on-shore wind was dead against them, swirling like a blizzard. The temperature was only about five degrees below zero, but there was an icy tang that cut like a jagged knife.
In spite of the intense cold, so laborious was the dragging of that cart through the snow, that Eric broke out in a violent perspiration. What troubled him still more was the realization that he was already tiring, although the party was still on the beaten road. In a very short while, he knew, they would have to strike off from the track, across wild and unbroken country to the beach.
To his surprise, the keeper kept right on, leaving the light on the left hand. The boy, forgetting discipline in his eagerness and excitement, spoke out,
"I thought they said 'west' of the light!"
The keeper turned and looked. He spoke not a word. There was no need.
Eric colored to the roots of his hair. He felt the rebuke.
Finally when they had passed the light by nearly half a mile, the road went up a slight hill, and the keeper led the way at right angles along a ridge of rock. It was rough almost beyond believing, but its very barrenness had made it useful. As the keeper had shrewdly hoped, the swirling blizzard had left its rough length bare, when all the lower ground was deep in snow. For the hundredth time since he had been on the station, Eric had to admit the wise foreknowledge of his chief.
As they swung on to the ridge the keeper turned and looked at Eric again. He caught the boy's apologetic glance and smiled back. No word was passed, but both understood.
The ridge helped them gallantly, though the wind whistled over it as though it were the roof-pole of the world. More than once it seemed to Eric as though the apparatus-cart would be turned upside down by some of the terrific gusts, and the boy had a mental picture of the crew floundering in the snow-drifts beneath.
Near the lighthouse, the ridge that had so befriended them merged into the level, and the crew forced its way on through ever deepening drifts. For about fifty yards the snow was above the hubs of the wheels, and more than once it seemed that the apparatus cart was so deeply stuck as to be immovable. The men left the shafts, and crowding round the cart like ants they forced it free, and half carried and half pushed it through the snow.
"Is there any shnow left at all?" queried Muldoon, when the worst of this was overpassed.
"What do you mean?" one of the men asked.
"I thought we'd waded through all the shnow in the worrld," the Irishman replied.
For a little space it was easy going until they came to the dunes above the beach. There the crew halted. As Jefferson had said, sloping upwards at an angle of forty degrees, was a steep sheet of glare ice, almost as smooth as though it had been planed. It would have taken a fly to walk on that surface, yet on the farther side of it was the only road to the wreck. The light was on the end of a little spit and the vessel in distress could be seen only from this spit. Without going on that neck of land she could not be reached by the gun, and this passage was grimly guarded by that sloping embattlement of ice.
"Up it, lads!" said the keeper.
The crew, gathered around the apparatus-cart, started up the slope. Six feet was as far as they could get. Even without added weight no one could stand on that glistening surface, and with the drag of the cart it was impossible. Several times the men tried it, only to come sprawling in a heap at the bottom of the hill.
"Two of you get up to the top!" ordered the keeper.
Two of the lightest men started. One of them, picking his steps with great care, managed to get half-way up; the other, going back for a run, tried to take the hill with a tremendous spurt. His impetus took him almost up to the top, but he was a few feet short and slipped back. He returned for another attempt.
In the meantime Eric had an idea. Instead of attacking the cliff at the point the others were trying, and where it was shallowest, he went twenty yards farther west, where the cliff was steeper, but rougher. Taking an ax he started to cut niches for steps up the cliff. He knew it would take a long time, but if the others did not succeed before him, he would at least get there. If the others succeeded, the loss of his time did not matter.
So, steadily, inch by inch, foot by foot, he made his way up the cliff, taking the time to make the notches deep enough for surety. The ice was not extremely hard, and Eric soon won his way to the top. He found the edge exceedingly difficult to walk on and very dangerous, for it fell in an almost sheer precipice on the water side, with the mush-ice beating up against it. The top, too, was soft and honeycombed. Using as much care in going along the edge as he had in scaling it, the boy soon found himself on the cliff immediately above the cart.
"Here, you fellows," he called, "heave me up a line!"
There was a second's surprise when the other members of the crew saw Eric on the crest of the ice-barrier which so far had defied them all.
"Good work!" called the keeper. "Jefferson, toss up the line."
Eric caught it.
"Have you a spike or anything?" he called, "I'll haul it up!"
The keeper yanked out one of the spikes of the frame on which the line was faked and the boy carefully hauled it up, then drove it into the ice as hard as he could, using his heavy boot for a hammer. He next took the line, and wound it around the spike to help him in holding it.
"Now," he yelled through the storm, "some one can come up the rope."
"Muldoon," said the keeper to the Irishman, "you're about the lightest, you go up first."
"'Tis meself will do it," was the reply, "an' it's blitherin' idjits we were not to think o' the way the kid did it."
Then he shinned up the rope like a monkey on a stick.
With both Muldoon and Eric hanging to the rope, it was not long until five men got to the top. The keeper, seeing how successful Eric's plan had proved, ordered every man to cut for himself a good foothold in the ice, and then, tailing on to the rope, they got the apparatus-cart up the slope, two men behind trying to guide it from below. It was a difficult haul, but at last they got the cart to the summit, and, in order to keep it from sliding down, straddled the wheels atop.
The cart rocked unsteadily. Suddenly, as a particularly vicious blast came whistling by, it canted as though it were going to fall. Eric, who was a few feet away from the cart, jumped forward to save it, but missed his footing and fell into the mush-ice twenty feet below, going clear through.
There was no time for orders. Muldoon, quick as a wink, almost before any one else had grasped the accident, knotted a line around the cart and taking the other end in his hand jumped into the mush-ice after the boy. So true was his eye that he struck almost the same point and a few seconds later appeared above the surface with Eric. Neither was hurt, but both were wet through, handicapping them for work on so cold a night.
Eric's ruse in getting the apparatus-cart to the top of the cliff, however, had solved the biggest part of the difficulty. By carefully sliding the cart along the face of the cliff for ten yards or a little more, they found themselves above the road leading out to the spit. It was then merely a matter of lowering the cart to the other side.
Meantime Muldoon had raced the boy to the lighthouse for a chance to change their clothes before they froze on them. No sooner did he knock on the door than the lighthouse-keeper came out, and the open door showed his daughter behind. Edith Abend was only seventeen years old, but she had already saved two lives.
"You got here at last, then," said the lighthouse-keeper gruffly.
Edith, with a readier sense that help was needed, said quickly,
"What has happened? Is there anything wrong?"
"Nothin' wrong at all, darlint," said the Irishman, with his national readiness to say nice things to a pretty girl, "only we've had a trifle of a duckin' an' if there's annything like dhry clothes in this house it would help us to our work. The lad here's quite wet."
"I don't see that I'm any wetter than you are!" protested Eric.
The light-keeper looked them over.
"Yon's the crew?" he asked.
"Yes," said Eric, "we've had a hard time getting here."
"I was wonderin' how ye were goin' to get over the ice-wall."
"We got over, all right," the boy replied.
"I see ye did. Well, I reckon I've some old things ye can have," the keeper said grouchily.
The girl disappeared and a moment later came back into the room.
"They're all in there," she said simply, pointing to the next room.
"'Tis yourself that's the jewel," Muldoon said, leading the way in with alacrity. There was nothing the matter with the Irishman's movements. When he wanted to be quick he could move like a streak of extra-greased lightning. He was out of his wet clothes and into a complete set of the keeper's in a hurry. Eric was not many seconds behind. They put on their own slickers, which had been dripping at the fireside, and were ready for work again.
Great was the boy's surprise, as he tied on his sou'wester, to see a small figure covered from head to foot in oilskins waiting for them. Still greater was his amazement when he saw that this was the girl.
"Is it comin' out to watch us ye are, Miss?" said Muldoon. "Sure the wind will blow ye away entirely. It's admiring the pluck of ye I am, but ye'd better stay indoors. 'Tis no night to be watchin'."
"I'm not going to watch, I'm going to work," the girl said calmly. "And I don't think you ought to waste time talking, either."
So saying, she walked out of the door to avoid further argument. The light-keeper looked longingly after the three as though he would like to join them, and help in the rescue, but his duty was with his light and he could not leave it.
So quickly had all this passed that Muldoon, Eric and the girl got to the edge of the spit just as the five members of the Coast Guard crew had unshipped the gun, placed it in position and loaded it.
"That you, Muldoon?" said the keeper.
"Yis, sorr, it's me."
"You'd better take the gun. You're the best shot. That is, if you're all right after your ducking."
"I'm in warrm, dhry clothes," the Irishman answered, "an' I'll do as you say. But you're just as good a shot yourself," he added.
"Don't blatherskite," the keeper said. "Grab hold an' lay her straight."
The Lyle gun, being so short, gives little real opportunity for aim, and the best man is one who has an intuition. This, Muldoon had. Besides, the old puzzle-maker had taught him how to allow for the drop of the line and how to estimate the force of the wind.
He fussed around for a minute or two, saw that the line was free on the pins and that the case was free, and waited for the gusts of wind to die down to a steadier gait. Then he fired. The red flare of the short cannon showed clear against the ice and the line went sailing out gracefully.
"Too far for'ard," said Eric disappointedly, as he saw it start. Muldoon only shook his head.
"'Tis not far off," he said.
Sure enough, as the missile was about half-way out to the wreck, the wind took the line and drove it sideways till it fell right abaft the funnel. A flare from the steamer showed that the line had been received.
"Nice shooting, Muldoon," the keeper said. "We'll have to give the credit to that well-fittin' coat you've got on." The lighthouse-keeper was at least twice the Irishman's size.
Muldoon looked particularly proud, because he had wanted to distinguish himself before the girl. It was of vital urgency, moreover, for if Muldoon had not been able to land the line, it would have meant a trip back to the Coast Guard station to get out the surf-boat, with very little likelihood of being able to force her up against the gale.
The men on the steamer started to haul in and the life-savers bent on a larger rope with a block and tackle. Again the steamer burned a flare to show that the block had been hauled on board and securely fastened, and then the coastguardsmen began to haul on the line, pulling out to the ship a heavy hawser on which ran the carriage for the breeches-buoy. Everything worked without a hitch, the hawser was got on board and the breeches-buoy hauled out.
Then the trouble began. The steamer lay partly submerged. She was a small boat and her only mast had gone by the board. The bridge was a tangle of wreckage. The breeches-buoy, therefore, could only be made fast to the stump of the mast a few feet above the deck. Ashore, the same difficulty prevailed. There was no high land, the tripod being down almost on water-line. As soon as the hawser got wet and heavy with snow and the ice from the blowing spray, it began to sag so that it nearly touched the water.
With the weight of a man on it, the breeches-buoy line sank below the surface of the water, or rather the mush-ice. It was bad enough for the rescued men, already nearly perishing with exhaustion, to have to get a ducking, but there was still a greater danger. This was that the tackle might not stand the strain of dragging the breeches-buoy, with a man in it, through the mush-ice. The increased resistance might break the line and risk anew the perishing of every life on board.
The keeper saw the difficulty and decided promptly.
"Jefferson and Harris," he shouted, "you're the tallest. Get out into that mush-ice and see how deep it is. Wade out as far as you can go. Follow the line and stand ready to catch the breeches-buoy."
The two men chosen waded out, battling almost for their lives with big pieces of ice. Fortunately the bottom sloped gradually and they were able to walk out a considerable distance. Shouting to them through his trumpet to wait there, the keeper ordered the rest of the crew to haul in the first man. As the keeper had expected, the rope sagged terribly, but, by drawing up his legs, the rescued man did not actually sink into the mush-ice until nearly up to the spot where Jefferson and Harris stood. The two men grasped the buoy and started pulling it ashore, one man holding the survivor's head above the water and ice, while the other made a path in the ice by forcing his way ahead of the buoy.
Half-way in, Harris collapsed. It afterwards developed that he had been quite badly hurt on the ice-barrier but had not said a word about it. As four men were needed on shore and there should be three to help in the ice, the crew was a man short.
"I wish we had a third man!" said the keeper irritably. "Confoundedly annoying that Harris should have got hurt now."
"You have a third," said a quiet voice, and Edith Abend stepped forward.
"Your orders, keeper?" the girl put in quietly.
The keeper looked at her sharply. He was a man of judgment and accustomed to read faces. Without another word, and in the tone he would have used in speaking to another man he said,
"Get right out there and hold the man's head above water as he comes in. Jefferson and you, Eric, will break the way for the buoy."
And so it was, that with a light-keeper's daughter, a girl seventeen years old, as the seventh in the crew, the life-savers of Point Au Sable saved from the City of Nipigon every soul on board.
A BLAZON OF FLAME AT SEA
Three weeks after the rescue of the crew of the City of Nipigon, navigation on Lake Superior closed down for the winter. Although the work had been hard and, during the last month, quite exhausting, Eric felt keen regrets in leaving the station and in bidding good-by to Dan. He had become quite attached to the old puzzle-maker and had grown to realize how valuable his help had been.
Eric found, moreover, that not only had the hermit mathematician started him along the right road to algebra, to "trig." and even toward the geometry which he once hated, but also that his training with the old puzzle-maker had taught him how to study. He settled down in deadly earnest in Detroit, keeping up with all his special studies and also doing a good deal of hard reading with his father's help. The inspector knew that the entrance examination to the Coast Guard Academy was one of the stiffest tests in the government service and he willingly gave his time to help Eric. It was a winter of hard work and, aside from some skating and ice-hockey, Eric took little time off from his books.
Largely as a result of the puzzle-maker's guidance and by his own persistent digging, Eric was well prepared for the examinations in June. He had some difficulty with rules and forms, but the essential principles of things were fixed solidly in his mind, so that when the lists were published, Eric found his name third, and second in Mathematics. His rival was a young fellow, named Homer Tierre, from Webb Academy, who was entering as a cadet engineer. The two boys struck up a friendship outside the examination room, and Eric was delighted to find that his new acquaintance had passed, with him, so high in the list that the acceptance of both was sure.
Although, at the Academy, Homer and Eric were apart a good deal, the one being a cadet of engineers and the other a cadet of the line, still they had many classes together. Eric, accustomed to the life-saving work, was able to be a good deal of help to his friend and taught him many tricks of swimming that he had learned from the Eel, two years before. Moreover, having been used to the strict discipline of the old lighthouse inspector at home, Eric fell readily into the rigid rules of the Academy and often was able to save his friend from some pickle for which the latter was headed. Homer's assistance was equally valuable to Eric, for the young cadet engineer had been daft about machinery ever since he was old enough to bang a watch to pieces to find out what made it go, and he was able to instill into Eric some of his own enthusiasm. This friendship was an added joy to Eric's delight in the Academy. He had never been more happy than during his first year as a cadet.
Eric was fortunate in having the right angle to life on entering the Academy, so that he did not have any difficulty in understanding the character of the discipline. A number of his classmates, conscious that they were training for commissions, considered themselves as junior officers. They were quickly set right on this mistaken idea, but the process of disabusing some of them was a sharp one. One member of the class, in particular, had the notion that the Academy was a matter of books, smart uniforms, and a preparation for epaulets. When he found that he had to drill as a private, toil as a member of a gun crew, handle heavy work, use his delicate fingers in knotting and splicing and so forth, he entered a mild protest. He was set right by a homely rebuke from one of the instructors, an old sea-dog who knew everything about seamanship from the log of Noah's Ark to the rigging of a modern sea-plane.
"You, Mr. Van Sluyd," he said bluntly, "if you haven't the nerve to do an enlisted man's work, nor the brains to do it better'n he can, what use'll you be as an officer?"
To do Van Sluyd justice, however, he took the call-down in good part and knuckled to at the practical end of his training. Eric soon found that this rather drastic phrase was a very fair presentation of the point of view of the Academy. The several instructors absolutely demanded a greater efficiency from the cadets than from the enlisted men. They had to receive instruction from the non-commissioned officers, just like the men did. This was no joke, either, for a warrant officer in the Coast Guard, especially a boatswain, has a knowledge of his craft far beyond a landsman's imaginings.
"Homer," said Eric to his friend one day, after a particularly stiff bout of gunnery mechanics, "is there anything that's ever been invented that we don't have to do here?"
"If there is, I haven't heard of it," his chum agreed. "Let's see, we've got navigation, and surveying, and physics, and chemistry, and gunnery, and tactics, and engineering, and ship-building, and—"
"Stop it, Homer," protested Eric, "you'd have to talk for a week just to make a list. I've often wondered if all this stuff is necessary."
"It sure is," his chum answered; "that's why I came into the Coast Guard instead of the Navy. There's a heap more variety, by nature of the work. A fellow's got to know everything about the handling of sailing ships, because part of the job is the handling of sailing ships in distress. He's got to be a sharp on towage, because he's got to take risks in storms that drive an ocean-going tug to port. He's got to know every breed of steamship and variety of engine, because the information's apt to be called on 'most any time."
"Yes, I suppose that's so," agreed Eric. "Navigation is just as bad. In the engineering end, you don't have as much of that, Homer, as we do, but I tell you, it's a fright the amount of stuff we have to learn. You take an ordinary ship captain. He only has to run into a few ports, and, in any case, he never goes near dangerous shoals. All he's got to learn is to keep away from them. But there isn't an inch on the American coast from Maine to Texas or from Alaska to Southern California that we don't have to remember. Almost any day a fellow's likely to have to chase into a bad shoal to help some ship that's fast on a lee shore; and that's usually in bad weather—it's no time to guess, then, you've got to be sure."
"I sometimes doubt," said Homer, "if all this infantry drill is going to be any use."
"Oh, I can see the use of that, all right," replied Eric. "In the Spanish-American War, the Coast Guard cutters did a lot of work, and, just the other day, our men were called on to keep San Domingo in order. After all, Homer, the Coast Guard is a military arm, just as much as the navy."
"They don't worry you the way they do us," groaned the young cadet engineer, "over all the different sorts of machinery for the handling of big guns. It's thorough, all right; there isn't a chap in our class who couldn't figure out and explain every process of manufacture and mounting, up to the actual work of handling the gun in an engagement."
"I don't see that you've got any kick coming," Eric retorted, "you always said you liked machinery. Now I haven't much use for mathematics, though I don't hate it quite as much as I did, and yet we get enough coast and geodetic surveying to prepare us for exploring a new world. I suppose they figure that if the United States ever annexes Mars, a Coast Guard crew will be put in charge."
"Likely enough," said the other, "but isn't that what you like about it?"
"Sure, it's great," agreed Eric. "I'm just crazy over the Academy. I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world. I don't believe there's a college within a mile of it for real training. There's all the pep to it that a Naval School has got to have, and although they hold us down so hard, after all, we get a lot of fun out of it. And take them 'by and large,' as the shellbacks say, don't you think the Coast Guard crowd is just about the finest ever?"
"You bet," Homer answered with emphasis. "It was seeing how they handled things that first headed me for the service. Did I ever tell you what made me want to join?"
"No," Eric replied, "I don't think you ever did."
"It was in New York," his friend began. "I was there with Father. We were doing the sights of the town and he took me down with him to the water-front. He took the occasion to call on the Senior Captain of the Coast Guard stationed there. They were old cronies.
"While they were talking, there came a 'phone from the Navy Yard. On account of the Great European War the Coast Guard had undertaken some special neutrality duty in New York harbor. The Navy had lent a tug for the purpose. The 'phone message was to say that while the Coast Guard was perfectly welcome to the tug, on which the patrol was being done, the tug captain was compulsorily absent in sick bay.
"The lieutenant, who had charge of the patrol,—he didn't look much older than I do—answered the 'phone. Evidently the admiral in command of the Brooklyn Navy Yard must have been talking to him, personally, because I heard his answer,
"'Certainly, Admiral. I shall be able to take her out without the master on board. As far as that goes, sir,' he added with an earnest laugh in his voice, 'I think I could take out anything you've got, from a first-class battleship down!'"
"That was going some!" exclaimed Eric.
"Wasn't it? But the joke of it was that the Admiral, not knowing that the Senior Captain had been in the office all the while, called him up and told him the story, ending with the statement,
"'I don't know that I'd be willing to say as much for all my lieutenants!'
"'I would!' the Coast Guard senior captain answered. And I figured right then and there, that the Coast Guard was what I wanted."
"I almost feel like that lieutenant now," said Eric, "and I'm not through the first year. And after the cruise I'll be Johnny-on-the-spot, for sure."
In some ways Eric was not altogether wrong in this statement, for his thorough knowledge of mathematics stood him in good stead in navigation. Questions such as "Great Circle Sailing" he ate alive, and a well known problem of "Equations of Equal Altitudes" was, to use his own expression, nuts to him.
Eric had the sense of gratitude strongly developed, and he always kept the old puzzle-maker informed of his progress. In return, the old man used to send him weird arithmetical problems, that it took the whole class weeks to work out.
In spite of the strong discipline, the spirit of the Academy was so congenial that the cadets were able to get into personal relations with the instructors. There was never the faintest overstepping of the most rigid rule, there was nothing remotely resembling familiarity between any cadet and an instructor, but, at the same time, the heartiest good feeling existed. For example, realizing the value of outside mathematical interests, the instructor in that subject used to allow the class to bring to him any kind of problem. On more than one occasion the instructor was as much interested in the puzzle-maker's devices as were the boys themselves. Great was the triumph of the class, when, on one occasion, they worked out a problem that had been too much for the queer old mathematician in Michigan.
The spring cruise on the practice ship Itasca more than fulfilled Eric's hopes. The salt of the sea was in his veins and he actually secured an approving phrase from the boatswain on one occasion—a compliment harder to get than from the Commandant of the Academy himself. It was real hard training; the cadets had to handle the ship and do all the work aboard her, as well as to keep up with their studies. None the less, it was enjoyable, every minute of it, bad weather as well as good, and at the end of his first year's cruise, Eric realized to the full that he had chosen the career for which he was best suited.
The boy's passionate interest in his work and his doggedness in study stood him in good stead. He had not dreamed that the course would be so thorough, nor that it would require such an incessant grind, but he never let up. By the end of the second year he was regarded as one of the most promising men in his class, and he had made several substantial friendships with his classmates. The Academy had none of the "prize" incentives of many colleges. A cadet had to work for all that he was worth just to pass. There were no half-way measures. Either a cadet passed or he failed. It wasn't healthy to fail. By the end of his second year Eric was well up in his class. He had qualified as a corporal in the military drills, he had secured the coveted honor of gunner's mate, and he was even looked upon with favor by "Tattoo Tim," alias Boatswain Egan of the Itasca.
Eric never forgot the first day when he was allowed to con a ship. It was right at the beginning of his third cruise. He had put a gun crew through its drill, under the eye of the officer, and felt that he had acquitted himself creditably.
"Mr. Swift," said the first lieutenant to him, "put the ship's position on the chart."
Eric saluted and withdrew. A few minutes later, returning to the executive officer, he answered:
"Forty-one degrees ten minutes north; seventy-one degrees twenty-two minutes west, sir."
"Very good: Lay off a course from this point to a point ten miles north by west from Cape Race light."
In less than ten minutes Eric was back with a diagram of the course, which the officer inspected thoroughly.
"You may steer the course," he said.
Eric's nerves were in good control, but he had a jumpy feeling when he realized that he was actually in charge. Once, and only once, he got a little panicky, and, turning to the officer on the bridge, said:
"Should I keep her out a bit, sir?"
"You are steering the course," was the officer's reply. It was all up to the boy.
"Make it nor'west by west half west," Eric said a little tremulously to the helmsman, as they came in sight of Sankaty Head on Nantucket Island.
"Nor'west by west half west, sir," the helmsman repeated, porting his helm a trifle.
After the ship had proceeded a certain distance, the lieutenant called another of the first-class men on the bridge and he took his turn. At the end of the trip the officer summoned the class.
"Mr. Swift," he queried, "why did you not take the Muskeget Channel?"
"I hadn't remembered exactly, sir," he explained, "the depths of the channels near the Cross Rip Shoals. I think I had them right, sir, but I wasn't sure enough of myself to feel that I ought to risk the ship."
"You will remember them, hereafter?"
"Mr. Van Sluyd," continued the lieutenant, turning to another member of Eric's class.
"Near Monomoy you stood in a little too close. Keep farther out from the Shovelful Shoal. If, for any reason, you are compelled to go as close as you did to the point, keep the lead going."
"In rounding Cape Cod, sailing an arc, change your course more frequently. It will save time and coal."
And, in similar fashion, the officer took up each little detail, dealing with the first-class men after they had shown what they could do. From that test of responsibility many of the cadets came down, white-lipped. It was a striking test of a lad's character as well as of his abilities. Some daring youths would shape as close a course as possible, shaving dangers by the narrowest margin. They were reminded that if a Coast Guard cutter touched bottom, no matter how lightly, even without the slightest injury, there would be an investigation. If it were found that the officer in charge had been guilty of negligence, even in the smallest degree, court martial was possible.
Other cadets, again, timid by nature or not sure of the course, would steer a long way round. They would be reminded of wastage and also of the fact that in rescue work, minutes, even seconds, might mean everything. If, under the test, a cadet showed ignorance of his duties, then he was in for a grilling.
In gunnery, Eric did not shine. He could always work out the necessary problems of elevating the gun to the right height and figuring out the drop of a shell of a certain weight at a certain distance. Yet, in spite of himself, there was always some little trick he could not catch. That was Van Sluyd's specialty. He had the "feel" of it, some way, and by the end of his third year he was as expert in gunnery as Eric was in seamanship. In the handling of a ship Eric was easily the best in his class. It was not until nearly the end of this third and last cruise on the Itasca, however, that he found his opportunity for personal distinction.
It was a dark, blowy night. Eight bells of the second dog watch had only been struck a few minutes before and the officers were chatting after dinner. Eric was on duty on the bridge with the second lieutenant, when the wireless sending apparatus began to buzz "S O S," "S O S," as the operator relayed a message he evidently had just received. At the same moment the shrill whistle of the speaking-tube that connects the bridge with the wireless room was heard.
"You may answer, Mr. Swift," the lieutenant said.
Eric picked up the tube, answered "Hello!" and then repeated the operator's words to the officer:
"Liner Kirkmore, on fire and sinking, forty-one degrees, eleven minutes north; thirty-five, sixteen west; crew and passengers to boats."
With a word to Eric, the lieutenant dispatched the messenger to report to the captain, plotted the position of the Kirkmore on the chart, and, less than two minutes after the receipt of the wireless message, the Itasca had changed her course and was speeding under forced draught into the night. The cutter had broadcasted the call and word had been received from land stations and other vessels that the call had been heard. Still the Itasca was one of the nearest to the reported location of the vessel in distress and she fairly hissed through the water.
Presently there was another message from the wireless room, and, as before, Eric took up the speaking tube and reported to the officer of the deck.
"'Very strange thing, sir,' he repeated, after the operator, 'I'm picking up a faint call from a small apparatus. I think it must be on one of the boats. The Lucania is racing for the Kirkmore, I've picked up her call.'"
"Ask him what he considers strange?" said the officer.
Eric put the query and again repeated:
"He says, sir: 'It's this way, sir. The first call stated that all the passengers and crew had taken to the boats.'"
"That call has been repeated several times and every one picked it up that way. Then there's a message coming from the boats, giving just where they are."
"That all seems straight enough."
"Yes, sir. But the operator says the wireless is still working on the ship!"
"On the Kirkmore?"
"Yes, sir. And Jenkins says he is sure that it's not the regular operator. It's an amateur."
"That sounds as if there were some people still left on the ship. Ask him what the message is?"