Eric transmitted the request.
"He says it's the same call, sir, exactly."
"The first one?"
"Yes, sir. That every one is in the boats. Only he says it's given jerkily and very slow."
"Find out what you can about it, Mr. Swift."
Eric ran down to the wireless room.
"Acts like a man who doesn't know much about wireless, sir. I'm sure, sir, that it couldn't be the operator, not even on a tramp steamer. There's hardly an amateur who would make such a mess of it," said the operator.
"What does he say?" asked Eric. "Can't you get word to him?"
"No, sir. That's what's puzzling me. I've called and called, and he pays no attention."
"Do you suppose your sending apparatus is in good order?"
"Yes, sir," the operator replied. "Working perfectly. There's two or three other ships calling the Kirkmore, and she doesn't answer them either. I've talked to most o' them, sir."
"Who's the nearest?"
"We seem to be nearest to the ship, sir," said the operator, "but the Lucania is the nearest to the boats. They seem quite a bit to the south'ard."
"Running into the line of travel, I suppose," said Eric. "What do you think is the meaning of that call?" he added.
"I think, sir," said the operator, "somebody must have been forgotten and left behind."
"But why doesn't he answer?"
"Maybe the receiving apparatus is broken down. There it is again, sir," the Coast Guard operator paused. "No, sir, it's not the operator. I don't think I could even tell what he means if it hadn't been gone over so often."
"Well," the captain said, when Eric reported the circumstances, "if the Lucania is nearer the boats than we are, and we are nearer the ship, we'd better find out who's sending that call."
"Yes, sir," Eric answered formally.
In the meantime the knowledge of the disaster had spread through the ship, and there was much excitement, when, one point off the port bow, the glare of the burning steamer showed against the murk of midnight.
Every one not on duty, and those on duty who were able, ran to the port rail. As the Itasca steamed on, under forced draught, quivering as her engines throbbed under her, the flare on the bow increased in brightness. In half an hour's time it could be quite clearly made out as a steamer on fire, the dense cloud of smoke being illumined from below by the glare of the flames.
"I hope the operator was wrong. If there is anybody on board," said Eric, in a low voice, to his friend Homer, "they wouldn't have much chance."
"Is the call still coming?" his chum asked.
"No," Eric answered, "nothing for twenty minutes."
The Coast Guard cutter speedily raised the hull of the burning steamer. Her stern was much higher out of water than her bow, and amidships she was all aflame, belching up dense volumes of smoke.
A message came into the radio room.
"The Lucania reports that she has picked up three of the boats," said the operator through the tube to the first lieutenant on the bridge. "The fourth boat is still missing."
"What's that craft over there, I wonder?" queried Eric, pointing to the starboard bow where a searchlight flickered into the sky.
"That's the La Savoie, I heard some one say," his friend replied; "she must have been coming up on the jump. We'll have half a dozen big liners here before morning."
"It's a wonderful thing, the wireless," the boy said meditatively; "from hundreds of miles away, every one rushes to the rescue. When you realize that every extra ten miles means hundreds of dollars out of the pockets of steamship companies and every hour's delay may be a serious inconvenience, it does look great to see the way every one drops personal concerns to go to the rescue."
"I wonder what would happen if a captain didn't?"
"There'd be a whale of a row. Court-martial and all that sort of thing."
"You can't court-martial a merchant-service man," protested Homer.
"He'd lose his ship, anyway."
"But suppose he made out he didn't hear the call?"
"Be sensible," Eric retorted. "How could he do that? Bribe the operator, or threaten him?"
"That's true," said Homer, thoughtfully. "It would look pretty bad if the wireless outfit on a ship was shut down, as soon as an 'S O S' came in."
"I don't believe there's a wireless operator in the business who'd stand for it," the boy declared. "They're a high-grade bunch of men. I'd be willing to bet if any operator got such an order, before he quit he'd send out a message to the nearest station or ship, telling the whole story."
"And then what?"
"Why, if the wireless was shut down then, and the operator told the truth of it, they'd tar and feather that skipper. Commercialism may be all right on land, but when you come right down to the bones of the thing, there's mighty few men on salt water that'll ever do a dirty trick to another man."
"Right you are," agreed Homer; "a shellback is the real thing in a pinch. By ginger," he continued, "doesn't she burn! Surely there can't be anybody on board of her."
The Itasca was now rapidly approaching the burning steamer. Amid the roar of the flames and the hiss of the sea against heated iron was heard the thin whine of the speaking tube whistle.
"Call from the burning steamer, sir, I think," said the operator, "but there's no meaning to it."
The captain spoke rapidly to the first lieutenant and the good ship began to tremble from stem to stern as the engines were reversed and the helm shifted so as to bring the sea a little on the port bow.
"Mr. Sutherland," came the first lieutenant's voice, "clear away the starboard whaleboat."
Eric stepped forward, for this was his station. The boat's crew sprang to their stations, the whaleboat was lowered to the rail, and as the Itasca lost her headway, the boat was neatly dropped in the water. The sea had looked a bit rough from the bridge, but down at the water's edge the waves were distinctly high.
Lieutenant Sutherland, who was also the instructor in mathematics, was an absolute wonder in many ways, but small boat work was not much in his line. Still, he handled her well. To Eric, of course, the rough sea did not matter. He was used to that in his life-saving work, and, indeed, every one forgot the danger as the boat pulled on in the lurid crimson of the burning ship. They came close, and hailed.
There was no answer, nothing but the dull roar of the flames in the hold and the spitting hiss as some spray was flung over the vessel's side. No one appeared on deck. The bow, where it was high above the water was cherry red hot, and even the more submerged stern seemed absolutely untenable.
"There can't be any one on board," said the third lieutenant. "You didn't hear a hail?"
"No, sir," answered Eric, "but Jenkins caught another call just before we left."
"Very strange," commented the officer, looking thoughtfully at the derelict. The boat was pulling up towards the lee side and the smoke was stifling. The burning steamer was rolling heavily and there was a litter of wreckage to leeward.
"Can't board there," the officer said to himself. He gave orders to pull again to windward.
"Men," he said suddenly, "there may still be some one aboard that craft. Who'll volunteer?"
A chorus answered him. Almost every man of the crew volunteered.
"Which of you is the best swimmer?"
There was a moment's pause and then one of the sailors answered,
"Maryon is, sir."
"Do you think you can get on board?" the officer said, turning to the sailor mentioned.
"I can get to her all right, sir," the sailor answered, "and I'll try to get on board."
"You may try then," was the reply; "we'll drop you right by her. You can swim around the stern and try the lee quarter."
The sailor stripped, and fastening a light line under his arms, waited for the boat to take the required place. How Eric wished that the Eel were there! But Maryon was a fair swimmer, and as soon as he struck out for the ship, the boy felt that he need have no fears for him. The sailor was still a couple of fathoms away from the side of the ship when, suddenly, a piece of wreckage up-ended on a sea and struck him. Those in the boat could not see how heavy was the blow, but it was clear that the sailor was incapacitated, and the crew hauled him inboard. He had a nasty cut on his cheek and his collar-bone was broken. While his hurts were being attended to, Eric saluted the officer.
"Well, Mr. Swift?"
"Mr. Sutherland," he said, "I've done a lot of life-saving work, sir."
"I'd like to volunteer, sir, if I might," the boy replied.
"You don't think it's too much for you?"
"I remember. You are an expert swimmer, are you not?"
"You are sure of yourself?"
"Very well, Mr. Swift," the officer answered, looking over him keenly, "You may go."
With a quick pulse in his ears throbbing in excitement and elation, the boy slipped out of his cadet uniform and tied the life-line round him. A swirl of eager oars brought the boat again beneath the stern of the burning steamer. Eric plunged into the sea, the thought flashing through his mind as he did so that he wished he could make a spectacular dive like those he used to envy in the Eel. That he was a swimmer showed itself the minute he touched the water. Without appearing to use one-half the effort Maryon had needed, the boy covered the distance between the boat and the flaming vessel in a few long strokes, watching warily for wreckage.
There was a treacherous suction as the vessel rolled, but Eric, trained to every form of danger in the line of rescue, kept close guard. He knew better than to make a false move from too great haste, and swam round cautiously, seeking for a place to board. The heat from that floating mass of belching flame was terrific, and more than once, as a gust brought down a cloud of fumes over him, the boy thought he would suffocate.
At last he saw, trailing over the quarter, a wire rope, one of the stays of the after derrick, and he made ready to climb. The stay evidently had been melted through at the derrick head, but the heated end had fallen in the water and cooled. Up this the swimmer swarmed, though the frayed wire drew blood from his hands and legs at every point he touched it. At last he reached the bulwark, grasped it and jumped aboard.
With a sharp cry of pain he leaped back to the rail again.
The deck was burning hot!
In spite of the spray that now and again came spattering over the derelict, the heat had been conducted throughout the craft. Not having thought of the possibility of a heated metal deck, Eric was barefoot. Of what use was it for him to be on board unless he could find out whether any one were there! The decks were empty. The steamer had sunk too deep for any one to be below, and live. There was only one place in which a survivor might still be—the sole remaining deck-house.
Thither the wireless aerial led! There, if anywhere, was some deserted creature, author of the unread message that had sparked across the sea. There, and there only—and between Eric and that deck-house lay the stretch of red-hot deck, a glowing barrier to attempted rescue.
Surely it was beyond attempt!
Like a flash came to the boy's remembrance the old ordeal for witchcraft in which a man had to walk fifty feet over red-hot plowshares, in which, if he succeeded without collapse, he was adjudged innocent. At once Eric realized that some must have survived that awful test if the ordeal was of any value. What man had done, man again could do! It was at least as good a cause to save some man or woman from a fearful death as it was to save oneself from penalty of witchcraft.
Daring all, he leaped down from the rail on to the superheated deck.
In spite of his stoicism, the boy could not repress a cry of agony, that rang cruelly in the ears of his comrades in the boat. They had seen his figure outlined black against the red glare of the burning craft, and exulted. At the boy's cry, they shuddered, and more than one man blenched.
The iron seared and crisped his flesh as his feet touched the torture. He could feel the skin curl and harden. Gritting his teeth, he sped at topmost speed of the house whither the aerials led.
The door was jammed!
Though the skin of his head seemed to tighten like a metal band, though his lungs stabbed within him as he breathed, though the pain in his feet was unendurable, Eric wrenched again and again at the handle, but the door would not budge. He called, but there was no answer. Almost delirious with baffled rage and excruciating suffering, the boy hurled himself against the door, throwing his shoulder out of joint with the power of the blow. The door fell inwards and he fell with it.
The heat that poured from the room was overpowering, a dull red glow in the far corner of the floor showing that the flames were immediately beneath. With a gasp and a clutch on his reeling senses, Eric saw stretched out on the wireless table before him the figure of a man, moaning slightly, but insensible. Unable to stand on the hot floor, unable to escape from the room in which he had become trapped, he had lain down on the instruments and his writhings near the key had sent those tangled messages that the operator on the Itasca had not been able to understand.
Had it not been for the instinctive stimulus of his life-saving training, Eric would have deemed that the man was beyond help and would have sought safety himself. But his whirling senses held the knowledge how often life lingers when it appears extinct. Scarcely conscious himself of what he did, Eric grasped the unconscious man in his arms, raced back across the terror of the red-hot deck, reached the stern—how, he never knew—threw his moaning burden overboard and dived in after him.
The shock as his parched and blistered body struck the cold sea water steadied Eric for a second, just long enough to grasp the man he had rescued, as the latter came floating to the surface. Then the pain of the salt water upon his cruel burns smote him, and he felt himself give way.
He tugged twice at the life-line as a signal that he was at his last gasp, bidding them pull in. Then, gripping the last flicker of his purposed energy on the one final aim—not to loose hold in the sea of the man he had rescued from an intolerable death, the boy locked himself to the sufferer in the "side carry" he once had known so well.
A sinking blackness came over him, flashes of violet flame danced before his eyes, his head suddenly seemed to be as though of lead, his legs stiffened and refused to move, and in the lurid glare of the burning steamer, rescuer and rescued sank beneath the waves. The last thing that Eric felt was the tug on the life-line underneath his arms. His cry for help was answered! The Coast Guard boat was near.
REINDEER TO THE RESCUE
When, the following morning, Eric awoke to consciousness in his bunk on the Itasca he found himself the hero of the hour. He had been well-liked in his class before, but his daring feat increased this tenfold. Like all clean-cut Americans, the cadets held plucky manliness to be the most worth-while thing in the world. The surgeon, who was bandaging his burns, told him, in answer to the boy's questions, that the rescued man would probably recover.
"You're not the only one I've got to take care of, though," the doctor said to him. "Van Sluyd's in sick bay this morning, too."
"What's the matter with him?" queried Eric.
"Van Sluyd's got grit," was the reply.
"What did he do?"
"I'm just going to tell you. About half an hour after the two of you had been brought on board, and while I was still examining your burns, Van Sluyd came up and asked if he could have a word with me.
"'Of course,' I answered, 'what's on your mind?'
"'My father's a doctor,' he said, 'and I've picked up a little medicine. Is the fellow that Swift rescued badly burned?'
"'Yes,' I answered, 'he is.'
"'Wouldn't he have a better chance if some skin-grafting were done?'
"'Not a bit of doubt of it,' said I.
"'Then,' he said, 'if it won't incapacitate me for the service, you can go ahead on me.'"
"Who'd have thought it of Van Sluyd!" exclaimed Eric. "Talk about nerve, that's the real thing! What did you do, Doctor?"
"I went and had a chat with the captain and told him just what was needed. I told him that it would put Van Sluyd out of active training for several weeks and might set him back in his examinations."
"What did the captain say?" questioned the boy.
"He just asked me if I thought that the man's recovery was in any way dependent on it, and when I said I thought it was, he answered that I could go ahead. You can be sure Van Sluyd won't lose out by it."
"But won't it cripple him?"
"Not a bit," the surgeon answered. "I'll just take a few square inches of skin off the thigh and he'll be all right in a few weeks."
"Won't he have an awful scar?"
"There'll be a bit of a scar. But he won't have any more scars than you, at that, my boy."
"Are my feet going to take a long time to heal, Doctor?"
"I'm afraid it'll be quite a while before they feel all right. We'll have you up and around before examinations, however, just the same. That's more than I can say for my other patient, though. He's badly burned."
"Have you found out who he was?" queried Eric.
"Certainly. He's the chief engineer of the craft, or, to speak more rightly, he was the chief engineer."
"How do you suppose he got left behind?"
"That's quite a story," the surgeon answered, as he tore off a piece of bandage. "He's too sick to do much talking, but it seems that when the fire was reported beyond control he sent all hands on deck out of the engine room, remaining behind himself to look after the pump-engines. The passengers and crew immediately took to the boats. When he tried to get up on deck a few minutes later he found that he was cut off. He had to get a crowbar and wrench his way through an iron grating, before he could get to the open air.
"In the meantime, every one supposed that he was in one or other of the boats, and they had pushed off, leaving him marooned. For an hour or more the flames smoldered, and the deck was quite bearable. He tried to gather materials for a raft, but almost everything on the ship was iron. The cabin fittings were wood, but he couldn't find an ax, the sockets where the axes were usually kept being empty.
"Then he remembered that the wireless instruments were clamped on to a wooden bench and he went into the deck-house to try to tear that apart. The door slammed as he went in, and while he was yanking at the bench the ship buckled and the pressure jammed the door, making him a prisoner. He seems to remember very little after that, but he must have tried hard to get out, for he broke his arm in some way."
"How about the wireless messages?"
"He says the operator had jotted down the original message he had sent, and he tried to repeat it as best he could. Of course all that last stuff no one could understand was sent when he was semi-conscious."
Eric winced as the other touched his shoulder.
"Get ready now," the surgeon said, "I'm going to snap that bone back into place. Ready?"
"Go ahead," the boy answered through set teeth.
The surgeon gave a quick sharp twist and there was a click as the shoulder went back.
"That's going to be a bit sore for a while," he said, "but you ought to be mighty thankful you put it out of joint."
"You'd have broken something instead, if it hadn't slipped," was the reply; "you must have hit that door an awful welt, for you're bruised on that side from the shoulder down. Just black and blue with a few touches of reddish purple. You're an impressionist sketch on the bruise line, I tell you! But there's nothing serious there. Using your carcass for a battering ram is apt to make a few contusions, and you've done well to get off so easily."
"I had to get into that deck-house. I wanted to be sure no one was there."
"It took more than wanting," the surgeon said, "you must have been just about crazy. A man's got to be nearly in the state of a maniac before he'll hurl himself against an iron door like that without thinking of the consequences to himself. You were out of your head with pain, Swift, the way it looks to me, you'd never have tried it in your sober senses."
"Glad I got crazy, then, Doctor," said Eric, gingerly moving himself a fraction of an inch, but wincing as he did so; "if I hadn't, I'd have failed."
"Well," the surgeon said, rising to go, "I think the fates have been mighty good to you, Swift, if you ask me. There's many a man has the daring and the pluck to do what you've done, but never has the chance. You had your chance. And you made good!"
As a matter of course, Eric's bunk became a center round which the other cadets gravitated, and his classmates did everything they could to make things as pleasant for him as possible. He was glad, none the less, when two or three days later, he was told that he might go up on deck.
The boy was scarcely aware of it, but with his shoulder and arm bandaged and both feet heavily swathed, he made rather a pathetic sight, which his white and drawn face accentuated. A hammock had been rigged up on the sunny side of the deck and to this he was carried.
Just as soon as he appeared on deck, for an instant there was a cessation of all work that was going on. Then, suddenly, started by no one knew whom, from the throat of every man on deck came a burst of cheers. It was the tribute of gallant men to a gallant lad.
Weakly, and with a lump in his throat, Eric saluted with his left hand, in reply.
It was an infraction of discipline, no doubt, but the officer in charge of the deck ignored it. Indeed, he was afterwards heard to say that he had difficulty in not joining in himself. A little later in the day, the captain himself came on deck. Before going below, he came amidships where Eric was lying, feeling weak, but thoroughly happy.
"I have the pleasure of informing you, Mr. Swift," he said, formally, "that I have entered your name in the ship's log for distinguished services."
This was more than Eric could have hoped for and he saluted gratefully. The boy realized how much more significant was this actual visit of the captain than if it had followed the usual custom of a message sent through the executive officer of the ship, and his pride and delight in the Coast Guard was multiplied.
Naturally, under the conditions, there was a slight relaxation of discipline in Eric's case, and more than once the first lieutenant came and chatted to the lad. Finding out that he was especially interested in Alaska, the lieutenant talked with him about the work of the Coast Guard in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The officer was an enthusiast about the Eskimo, holding them to be a magnificent race, enduring the rigors of the far north and holding themselves clean from the vices of civilization. As one of his classmates was taking up Eskimo language, Eric also took up the study of it, since he had spare time on his hands while in sick-bay. Meantime, however, he kept up his studies at top notch.
The value of the Eskimo language to him, however, Eric never realized until the close of his third year. Though limping a good deal, he had been able to be up and around for a month before the exams and he had been slaving like a forty-mule team. Still, work as hard as he could, the boy was conscious that there were others who could surpass him. Especially there was one, a fellow called Pym Arbuthnot, who was a hard competitor.
They used to say of Pym that he could learn a subject by looking at the outside of a book, and his memory was as retentive as his acquisition was quick. He was always first—in everything but mathematics. There Eric had him. Often he blessed the memory of the old puzzle-maker, as week by week his success in mathematics kept him right abreast of his rival. When at last the exams came off and the lists were made known, Eric was second. He had not quite been able to catch up with Pym, who was first, as every one had expected. To Eric's great delight, moreover, Homer was first in the engineering class.
About a week later, the commandant called him into his office.
"Lieutenant Swift," he said, and the boy's face glowed at this first use of the title, "you have been commissioned and ordered to the Bear. I am told that you know a little Eskimo."
"Yes, sir, a little," Eric answered.
"Your showing in the Academy has been creditable," the commandant continued, "and I have the pleasure of informing you that your appointment as United States Commissioner on the Bear on her next trip has been forwarded to me," and he touched a paper lying on the desk.
"I have to thank Mr. Sutherland for that, sir," Eric answered.
"It is a matter of record, sir," the commandant answered a trifle sternly, "that you have done your duty. Appointments in the Coast Guard, Mr. Swift, are made upon the single basis of efficiency and fitness. I have the honor to congratulate you upon your commission and to wish you well."
Walking from the commandant's office, Eric, now "Lieutenant Swift," met the first lieutenant. He looked so excited that the officer stopped and spoke to him.
"You wanted to speak to me?"
"I've been ordered to the Bear, sir," blurted out Eric, for a moment dropping the official speech and talking eagerly, "and I've got the Commissionership, too!"
The first lieutenant raised his eyebrows slightly at the conversational form of address, but he realized that the boy was bubbling over with his news.
"I'm very glad, Mr. Swift," he said heartily; "perhaps you'll be able to use a little of that Eskimo you learned."
"I'm so grateful to you, Mr. Sutherland," Eric began, but the other stopped him with a slight gesture.
"I rather envy you your first trip into the Arctic," he said; "it's an experience that no one ever forgets. And you will find out for yourself whether I have overestimated the Eskimo as a race." He put his hand kindly on the lad's shoulder, as he noticed the slight limp, and remembered.
"You're going to extremes," he continued; "from the red-hot decks of a burning ship to the ice hummocks of the polar seas. In that country I'll pass on to you a word of warning that Commodore Peary once gave me. Make it your motto in the Arctic. It is this—'Be bold, but never desperate.'"
With a grateful answer, and with his commission as third lieutenant and his appointment as United States Commissioner in his hand, Eric walked out a full-fledged officer of the Coast Guard and Uncle Sam's representative in the Arctic seas.
Several weeks later, Eric reported on board the Bear. He had broken his trip west for a couple of days at home and had managed to snatch the time to run up to his old Coast Guard station and to visit his friend, the puzzle-maker. He really felt that he owed the initial success of his career to the old mathematician, and in this he was far more nearly right even than he imagined. He carried with him into the Arctic the old man's last advice.
"I'm gittin' old," the puzzle-maker had said to him, "not here when you come back. Life—he is like figuring, you think him straight, you work him careful, right every time!"
It was with a keen delight that Eric realized, when he boarded the Bear, that sailorship was not merely a thing of the books. Although he knew that the Coast Guard vessel was a converted whaler, it had never fixed itself in his mind that the Bear was a sailing vessel with auxiliary steam, and that she was handled as a sailing vessel. Barkentine-rigged, with square sails on the foremast and fore-and-aft rig on her main and mizzen, Eric found later by experience that her sailing powers were first-class. His delight in the handling of the ship added to his popularity with his brother officers, all of whom, as older men, had been trained in clipper days.
At Seattle the Bear took aboard the mail for Nome and St. Michael. This consisted of over 400 sacks, an indication of the growth of a city which in the spring of 1897 consisted only of a row of tents on a barren beach. At Unalaska, in the Aleutian Islands, five destitute natives were taken aboard the Bear for transportation to their homes in St. Michael.
Off Nunivak Island, Eric had his first sight of polar ice, but the pack was well broken up and gave little trouble. Norton Sound was comparatively free of ice, however, and the Bear reached St. Michael's ten days later. As St. Michael's Bay was filled with ice-floes, the vessel anchored to await favorable conditions for landing mail. A "lead" or opening in the ice having formed between Whale Island and the mainland, after a clear night's work, the Coast Guard cutter dropped her anchors inside the ice. A couple of days later the floes cleared partly away and the Bear crossed over to Nome.
Endeavoring to make St. Lawrence Island, where the head government reindeer herder was to be landed, the Bear struck a heavy ice pack, and the little vessel had to give up the attempt to land. She worked to the northeast, out of the ice, and the captain changed the ship's course for King Island.
This was the first opportunity Eric had to use his U. S. Commissionership. One of the natives, who had been associated with the white prospectors, was accused of ill-treatment towards his children, a very unusual condition in the Arctic. He had boasted a good deal to the other natives that the United States had no judges so far north, and that the white men could not punish him. In order to teach him a lesson, Eric heard the case, found the man guilty and sentenced the native to a day's imprisonment in the ship's brig, in irons, releasing him shortly before the vessel sailed. A sick native, with his wife and three small children were taken on board, for transportation to the hospital at Nome.
The young lieutenant also made an inspection of Prince of Wales village. During the entire winter there had not been a single case of disturbance and hardly a case of sickness.
"There are mighty few villages of the same size in the States," said the surgeon to Eric, as they were returning to the boat, "which could show as good a record as these Eskimo villages. Nobody sick, nobody living on charity, nobody headed for jail!"
Returning to Nome, what was Eric's delight to find Homer Tierre awaiting them! He had been assigned to duty on the Bear to relieve one of the juniors, who had been assigned to another cutter, and the two young officers greeted each other warmly. The head government reindeer-herder was eager to get to his post, so the Bear made a second attempt, this time successfully.
On the island only one case came up before Eric as United States Commissioner, that of a native who had allowed his dogs to run in the reindeer herds, four deer having been killed. Eric, before whom the case was tried, ruled that the native should be made to pay for the deer. As the margin of living in those barren islands is very small, this was quite a heavy punishment, and struck terror into the hearts of the natives. They had been ignoring the government's regulations concerning the corralling of the huskies, believing that there was no one with power to punish infractions of the law.
From there the Bear went to Cape Prince of Wales, and here Eric fell in with Joey Blake, the former first mate of one of the whaling vessels rescued by the famous Overland Expedition in 1897. For the first time Eric heard the whole story of that heroic trip when the Coast Guard sent three men to save the lives of three hundred men, imprisoned in the polar ice. He heard how the men who were now his brother officers had done that which no white man had ever done before, how they had gone from Nome to Point Barrow in the dead of winter, their only base of support in those months of frozen night being their own fortitude and resourcefulness.
Joey Blake, now in charge of the Point Barrow station of one of the commercial whaling companies, waxed eloquent as he told how the Coast Guard men had risked their lives over and over again, to reach the herd of reindeer, who might be driven on the hoof over mountains that had never before been crossed. He told how, thereby, they had saved from starvation and death the crews of several vessels fast in the crushing grasp of the ice-pack of the Arctic Seas. From one of the men who owed his life to that magnificent piece of daring, Eric learned the tale of the great march across the ice and round the inhospitable shores in the bleak darkness of the Arctic night. He understood why Congress had voted special thanks and medals to the three men who carried to success the greatest rescue in Arctic history, full as that record has been of sacrifice and heroism.
In November, 1897, word reached the United States that eight whaling vessels, with 287 men on board, were fast in the ice north of Point Barrow. Nothing was known of their condition, save that the provisions of the entire fleet could not be counted upon to give them food beyond the end of January. Possibly hunting and fishing might enable this to be spun out a month or so, but not more. The way through Bering Straits would not be open until June, at the earliest. Starvation, therefore, was imminent. The United States Government naturally turned to the Coast Guard—then known as the Revenue Cutter Service—well assured that whatever was possible in the realm of human courage and skill would be done.
Between the marooned whalers and civilization lay a thousand miles and more of the most fearful road that man has ever had to travel, a road untrod, with cold like to the bitterness of death as its constant state and the howl of the blizzard for its sole companion. Not only must this blind and awful trail be conquered, with possible disaster in every mile and a sure heritage of suffering and pain in every step, but food sufficient to last 300 men for over four months had to be taken over those desolate wastes.
The Bear, though only three weeks back from a six months' cruise in Arctic waters, was ordered back to the desperate attempt. There was no need to ask for volunteers in the Revenue Cutter Service. Every man in the service, from the most recently enlisted man to the Captain Commandant would have stepped forward. As it was, the expedition contained three of the ablest and most vigorous men in the entire service. It was under the command of Lieutenant Jarvis, with Lieutenant Bertholf (now the Captain Commandant of the Coast Guard) as the second in command. Only one other white man, Surgeon Call, accompanied the expedition.
The Bear, under sail and steam, headed for the north. Every mile gained by sea meant a vast help to the expedition. Yet, when Cape Nome was still 85 miles distant, the little vessel ran into thick mush-ice. Beating around for clearer water the wind began to die down and the Bear was almost caught. Had she been frozen in then, ten miles to the east of Southeast Cape, the expedition would have been frustrated and the whalers left unrescued. It was a narrow escape and the commander of the Bear turned back to Cape Vancouver, and the next morning steamed to within five miles of a native village, not marked on any chart, but visible from the ship.
Minutes counted, and two boats were sent off to the shore. The settlement was found to be the village of Tununak, in which, by good fortune, was a half-breed trader, Alexis, who had dogs. On December 18th the overland expedition started, far south of Nome, with four sleds and forty-one dogs, nine dogs being harnessed to each of the sleds belonging to Alexis and fourteen to the heavy one from the ship. From Tununak they went to Ukogamute, and because a southeast wind had cleared away the ice from the shore, the party was compelled to climb a range of mountains between the two villages.
"Did you ever climb a mountain with a dog team?" queried Joey Blake. "Take my word, it's some job. You've got to tackle a thing like that to get the heartbreak of it. It's bad enough to have to run ahead of a dog team on the level, but in mountain country it's something fierce."
"Do you have to run ahead of the dogs?" Eric said in surprise. "What for? To break a trail?"
"Sure. A dog team can trot faster than a man can walk but not as fast as he can run. So a fellow's got to run in the deep snow a hundred yards or so, then walk, then run, an' so on. I met Alexis a year or two after the expedition an' he told me all his troubles. They got to the top of the mountain, he said, in the midst of a furious snowstorm. It was so thick that the natives could not decide on the road an' it was impossible to stay up on the crest without freezin' to death. At last they decided to chance it. The side of the mountain was so steep that the dogs couldn't keep up with the sleds an' there was nothing to do but toboggan to the bottom of the hill.
"What fun," exclaimed Eric.
"Ye-es," the other said dubiously, "but it was a two-thousand-foot slide! They wound small chains around the runners of the sleds to try an' check their speed a little, an' hoping that they wouldn't hit anything, let 'em go. Just as the first sled had begun slidin', Alexis told me he called out that he thought they were a little too much to the north an' all the sleds would go off a precipice into the sea. It was too late to stop, then. It took three hours to climb one side of the mountain, an' less than three minutes to go down the other side.
"From there they went straight along the coast to Kiyilieugamute, where they had reckoned on gettin' dogs to replace the young dogs on the 'scratch teams' Alexis had made up. All the dogs had gone on a trip for fish an' the natives said it would be two days before they arrived. So Jarvis went ahead with the two good teams, leavin' Bertholf to follow as soon as the native dogs arrived. Four days of hard traveling, stoppin' at Akoolukpugamute, Chukwoktulieugamute, Kogerchtehmute, and Chukwoktulik brought 'em to the Yukon at the old Russian trading post of Andreavski.
"On the Yukon, I guess they made good time. You know, in the fall, when there are sou'westerly gales in the Bering Sea, the water rises in the lower Yukon, an' as it freezes quickly, there may be a trail of smooth glare ice for miles. Then there's prime traveling. But, often as not, the water flows back again before the ice is thick enough to travel on. It makes a thin shell, an' dogs, sleds an' everybody goes through an' brings up on the solid ice below.
"As a matter of fact, it put Jarvis' teams down an' out; most of his dogs were bleeding at every step from ice-cuts in the cushions of their feet. He had trouble with the natives, too. Two of them got violent colds, an' they were no use for traveling."
"Seems queer to think of Eskimos catching cold," said Eric; "now if it had been Lieutenant Jarvis, I wouldn't have been surprised."
"There's nothing as tough as a white man," said the whaler. "If you look up stories of explorers you'll always find it's the natives that get used up first."
"Why, do you suppose?"
"A white man is more used to putting out energy. After all, natives are lazy, an' a white man on an exploring expedition or a rescue is pushing natives faster than they have ever been used to going."
"He's taking the same trouble himself!" objected the boy.
"Sure, he is. But then, in one way or another, he's pushing all the time. Jarvis told me that the next two or three days were bad. Off Point Romanoff the ice-crush was piled high an' they had to lift the sleds over the hummocks for two days on end. A snowstorm came up in the middle of it, an' I guess it was touch and go until they made Pikmiktallik, nine miles further on. Next day, late in the afternoon, they drove into St. Michael's, havin' covered three hundred and seventy-five miles in twenty-one days, with only one day's rest.
"The story of how Jarvis got teams at St. Michael's and Unalaklik is a yarn all by itself. Anyway, he got 'em, and on January fifth left Unalaklik, by a mountainous trail along the shore. A wild bit of road delayed 'em before they reached Norton's Bay. On the further shore, I guess they had real trouble. Jarvis told me—and the phrase has stuck in my mind ever since—that the ice looked like a cubist picture. I've seen stuff like that, but I never had to travel over it."
"It sounds awful," said Eric.
"It's worse than that," was the reply. "I don't want any of that sort of travel in my dish, thanks. Well, to go on. It was right there that Jarvis' an' Bertholf's trail divided. Orders had been left at Unalaklik for Bertholf to go on an' meet Jarvis at Cape Blossom, on the north side of Kotzebue Sound, with a thousand pounds of provisions."
"How could he catch up with Jarvis with a load like that," queried the boy, "when the first part of the expedition was traveling light?"
"Jarvis had to make a nine-hundred-mile roundabout, clear the way round the Seward Peninsula," explained the whaler.
"To get the reindeer."
"That's right," said Eric. "I forgot about the reindeer."
"They're the whole story," the other reminded him. "They couldn't have got food up to us with dogs, nohow. It would have taken an army of dogs."
"I don't see why?"
"You've got to feed dogs," was the answer. "Two hundred an' fifty pounds is a good weight for a dog team an' half of that is dog-feed. The food for the humans in the party is nigh another fifty pound. So, you see, a dog team on a long journey will only get in with about a hundred pounds. At the rate of a pound a day a man for four months, it would take all of five hundred dog teams of ten dogs each to get the stuff up there! An' what would you do with the five thousand dogs when you got 'em up there?
"No, winter travel in Alaska's got to be by reindeer. You mayn't know it, but it's the U. S. Government that has made the Eskimos happy. There's one man, Sheldon Jackson, of the Bureau of Education, who's brought more peace and happiness to a larger number of people than 'most any man I know."
"How? By introducing reindeer?"
"Just that," the whaler answered. "The Eskimo would have been wiped off the face of the earth but for that one man's work. He started the reindeer idea, he brought in a few himself, he got the Government interested an' now reindeer are the backbone of northern Alaska. Our steam whalers had driven the whales an' the walrus an' the seal so far north that the Eskimo couldn't reach them. They were slowly starvin' to death by hundreds when Uncle Sam stepped in. And your captain commandant, that's Bertholf, who I'm telling you about now, he did a lot for Alaska when he brought in the bigger breed, the Tunguse reindeer, which are comin' to be the real beasts o' burden here in the north. It was knowin' what could be done with reindeer that sent Jarvis round to Point Rodney and Cape Prince of Wales to get the herds together an' start 'em north."
"I thought," said Eric, wrinkling up his forehead, "there was a herd nearer than that. How about the Teller Station at Port Clarence? Isn't that a reindeer layout?"
"It is," said the old whaler, "but distress among the miners in the Upper Yukon had been reported earlier, an' that herd had been started off for there. Jarvis figured on rounding up Artisarlook's herd at Point Rodney, and the Government herd under C. M. Lopp at Cape Prince of Wales, an' arrangin' to drive 'em to Point Barrow. Then, by pickin' up Bertholf, who was to cut straight across the Seward Peninsula with the dog-teams and the provisions, he would be sure of having enough supplies to push north.
"Then Jarvis struck snow-drifts! The guides traveled with snowshoes an' did their best to make a trail, Jarvis doing a big share o' the work. The runners of the sleds went clear down an' the dogs sank nearly out of sight in their struggles to move 'em. The men had to go backwards and forwards a dozen times in front of the sled, stamping it down hard. Then the dogs would drag it ten feet or so an' they'd have to pound the snow again. There's something that's exhaustin'. Even the dogs played out an' simply lay down in the snow, refusin' to go any farther."
"Without any shelter?"
"Huskies don't need any shelter. They're tough brutes so far as weather is concerned. Durin' the coldest winter weather in the worst blizzards they'll curl up anywhere on the snow an' sleep, an' when the snow has drifted over 'em, get up, shake themselves, an' lie down in the same place again for another sleep."
"They scrap a lot, too, don't they?"
"At feedin' time. When bein' fed they are like wild animals an' snarl an' bite each other, keepin' up one continual fight until everything is eaten. It's more than one man's job with a club to keep 'em quiet enough for all the dogs to get their share. But when all the grub is done with, they'll get moderately quiet again.
"At Golovin Bay, Jarvis found the Teller reindeer herd under Dr. Kettleson. He was on his way to St. Michael for the Upper Yukon, same as I told you, an' had started from Port Clarence three weeks before but had been stopped by the deep snow. So Jarvis sent back the dog teams to Bertholf, who was waiting for them at Unalaklik, and started out with reindeer teams."
"How do reindeer travel?" queried the boy.
"All right, in winter, but they're irregular," the other replied. "Every one has got to be ready in the morning for the start, for the instant the head team moves, all the deer are off with a jump, full gallop. For half an hour or so they go like an express train, then they sober down to a more steady rate of speed, an' finally, when they are tired, they'll drop into a walk. Jarvis' deer played him a nasty trick on this trip."
"What was that?" asked the boy.
"It was on the way to Point Rodney. It was blowing a living gale an' the snow was blinding. In the dark Jarvis' deer wandered from the trail, got entangled in a lot of driftwood on the beach, which was half covered over with snow, took fright, an' finally wound up by running the sled full speed agin a stump, breakin' the harness, draggin' the line out of Jarvis' hand an' disappearin' in the darkness an' the flying snow. Luckily Jarvis knew enough not to try and follow him. He stayed right there."
"All night?" queried the boy.
"Luckily, he didn't have to," the other answered. "Two hours later, a search party found him. They dug a hole in the snow an' camped right there.
"The next day they only made five miles. The storm was so bad that the man breakin' trail couldn't stand up an' had to crawl on his hands and knees. Even the reindeer wouldn't travel in a straight line, wantin' to turn their tails to the blast. This would have taken the party straight out to sea over the ice. After three days' delay, Jarvis insisted on travel, an' he nearly had a mutiny on his hands. But he put it through. He's one of the kind of men that always keeps on going!
"Then came the time for diplomacy. Jarvis had to persuade 'Charlie' Artisarlook, just on his say-so, to give up his whole herd, his entire wealth, promisin' that the same number of deer should be returned. As a small village had grown up around this herd of Artisarlook's—which made him quite the most prominent member of his race for miles around—an' as they depended entirely for their food and clothing on the reindeer herd, it was like askin' a city to empty its houses of everything for the sake of men they'd never even seen. I think it says a lot for the Eskimos that they agreed."
"That's me, too. It's something to give up every penny you own merely on a promise that it will be returned, to leave your wife, family an' neighbors starving, an' go eight hundred miles from home in an Arctic winter over a terrible road to help a party of white men in distress.
"When Artisarlook agreed, Jarvis and he went on ahead, leaving Surgeon Call to follow with the herd to Cape Prince of Wales. This, Jarvis told me, was one of the worst bits of road on the entire trip. Here's what Jarvis said himself about it:
"'As I remember it, the thermometer was over thirty below zero and there was a tidy blizzard blowing when we started for Cape Prince of Wales. The going was rough beyond words. In the afternoon, suddenly Artisarlook wanted to camp, but I thought he was trying to work on my fears, so I made him go on. But the boy was right, for shortly after it got dark we struck the bluffs near Cape York and our road was over the ice crushes that lined the shore.
"'I have never seen such a road. Artisarlook went ahead to try and pick out the way, if indeed it could be called a way, which was nothing but blocks of ice heaped in confusion and disorder. I stayed behind to manage the heavy sled which was continually capsizing in the rough ice. By eight o'clock I was done out and quite willing to camp. But this time Artisarlook would not stop. It was too cold to camp on the ice without shelter or wood—the ice we were on was in danger of breaking away from the bluffs at any minute, and then it might be the end of us. We must get on beyond the line of bluffs before stopping.
"'To make matters worse I stepped through a crack in the ice into the water, and, almost instantaneously, my leg to the knee was a mass of ice. I was now compelled to go on to some place where the foot-gear could be dried. As though in a dream, suffering the most horrible tortures of fatigue, we pushed on dispiritedly until midnight, when we came to a small hut about ten by twelve, in which fifteen people were already sleeping. It was the most horrible place I have ever been in, but, at the same time, I was never so happy to be under a roof before. Though I had eaten nothing all day, I was too tired to do more than to crawl into my sleeping-bag and sleep.
"'The blizzard raged as fiercely outside as on the day before, but I could not stay in that pestilential and filthy hut. Even Artisarlook—and an Eskimo is not over-particular—found difficulty in eating his breakfast. For my part—I could not breathe. The air was horrible and it was refreshing to get outside and to be going through the storm and over the rough ice. Fortunately there was another village about ten miles further on and we stopped there and had a good meal to fortify ourselves against the battle around the mountains of the Cape York.
"'At last I had struck the worst road in the world. All the tremendous pressure of the Polar Seas forcing the ice to the southward was checked by the land masses of Siberia and Alaska. The ice, twisted and broken, crushed and mangled, piled in a welter of frozen confusion along the shore. Darkness set in before we came to the worst of it, and a faint moon gave little light for such a road. For fifteen miles there was not ten feet of level ground. Though the temperature was thirty below zero, Artisarlook and I were wet to the skin with perspiration from the violence of the work. We would have to get under the heavy sled and lift it to the top of an ice hummock sometimes as high as our shoulders or even higher and then ease it down on the other side. Three times out of four it would capsize.
"'It was a continuous jumble of dogs, sleds, men and ice—particularly ice—and it would be hard to tell which suffered most, men or dogs. Once in helping the sled over a bad place, I was thrown nearly nine feet down a slide, landing on the back of my head with the sled on me. Our sleds were racked and broken, our dogs played out and we ourselves scarce able to move when we finally reached Mr. Lopp's house at the Cape.'"
"Glorious!" cried Eric, his eyes shining; "they won through!"
"Yes, they got through all right," the whaler answered. "They still had a terrible journey ahead of them, but success was sure. Two or three days later Dr. Call reported with Artisarlook's herd. Lopp, of course, was an expert in handling deer an', besides, knew the country well. With sleds and over four hundred reindeer, equipped in every way except for provisions, Jarvis started for the north. He met Bertholf at the appointed meeting-place, Bertholf having done miracles in crossing the divide with the provisions.
"Meantime Lopp took a chance with the deer that no one less experienced in local conditions dared ha' done. In the teeth of a blizzard he forced the deer herd over the ice of Kotzebue Sound, miles away from land. Though he himself was badly frostbitten, an' though every one of the herders arrived on the further shore with severe frost-bites, the crossing was achieved, savin' several weeks o' time.
"So, with the deer comin' over the mountains, where they could find moss, an' with the Coast Guard men coming up the coast in the dog teams Bertholf had brought, rescue came up to us on Point Barrow.
"I've seen some strange sights in my time an' I've lived all my life with men who sported with death daily. But I've never seen a stranger sight than strong men creepin' out of the snow-banked hovels where they'd been for four long months, half-starved and three-quarters sick, to actually feel Jarvis to make sure that he was real.
"Many and many a man reckoned it was delirium to think that help had come. It seemed beyond belief. An' when Jarvis told 'em that four hundred reindeer were only a day's journey away, an' that there was fresh meat enough for all—old seadogs that hadn't had any sort of feeling for years, just broke down and cried like children.
"Then, while the excitement was at its height, and everybody was asking questions at the same time, a grizzled old whaler, who had been whalin' for half a century an' more, I guess, half-blind with scurvy, crept forward and laid his hand on Jarvis' shoulder.
"'Boys,' he said in a quavering voice, 'this ain't just one man, it's the whole United States.'"
THE BELCHING DEATH OF A VOLCANO
The whaler's story of the great Overland Expedition set Eric questioning about the work of the Coast Guard with the reindeer. He learned that, partly as a result of his handling of the trip, the government had selected Lieutenant Bertholf to make an exploration of northern Siberia for the purpose of importing Tunguse reindeer, which were reported to be bigger and better fitted for Alaska than the Lapp reindeer. He found out how over 200 head of the larger species had been successfully imported, and a couple of days later had a very vivid demonstration of the fact in seeing an Eskimo trot by, riding a Tunguse reindeer like a saddle horse.
The more the boy saw of the Eskimo, too, the more he learned to value their race strength. It was true that they were dirty and that their houses smelt horribly. But, after all, Eric reasoned, it is a little hard to keep the habit of baths in a country where, during six months in the year, a man would freeze solid in a bath like a fly in a piece of amber. The Eskimo's indifference to smells, moreover, he learned to understand one day, quite suddenly. He was pacing up and down the deck with the whaler a day or two before the Bear reached Point Barrow.
"You're always worryin' over those smells," Joey had said to him. "You've lived in a city, haven't you?"
"Nearly all my life," the boy replied.
"Have you ever been in a city what wasn't noisy with street cars, an' wagons, an' automobile horns, an' children playing, an' music-boxes an' pianos goin' an' all the rest of it?"
"It is noisy," Eric admitted, "but you soon get used to that."
"Hearin' is just one o' the five senses, ain't it?"
"An' smellin' is another?"
"Well, an Eskimo's nose gets to be like a city man's ear, one smells all the time an' doesn't notice it, the other hears all the while an' doesn't care. You can't judge a people by its smell. An' when it comes to fair dealin', you won't find anywhere a squarer people to deal with than the Eskimo. You're Commissioner, ain't you?"
"Yes," the boy answered.
"An' you haven't found much crime, have you, eh?"
"Mighty little," he admitted.
"It's the same every year. They're a fine race, the Eskimo. I'll tell you just one little thing about 'em, that I don't think could be said of any other native race in the whole world."
"What's that?" the boy asked.
"You know," the whaler said, "how natives go to pieces when civilization hits 'em."
"What do you suppose is the reason?"
"Whisky and white men's ways," answered Eric promptly.
"Right, first shot," said the other. "Soon after Alaska was opened up, the Eskimo learned the excitin' effects of whisky. Fearin' trouble, a strict watch was kept on the sale of liquor to the natives, an' as it was easy enough to find out where the whisky had come from an' no vessel could escape from the Arctic without being known, tradin' spirits to the Eskimo soon had to be given up.
"But, in order to increase business, the traders taught one old Eskimo chief, named Ah-tung-owra, how to make whisky out of flour and molasses."
"They made it themselves?"
"But where could they get stills? I should think it was as easy to catch a trader selling stills as selling whisky."
"They're home-made stills," the whaler explained. "There ain't much to the apparatus. It is just a five-gallon coal-oil tin, an old gun-barrel an' a wooden tub. The liquor they make tastes like chain lightnin', and makes up in strength what it hasn't got in flavor.
"But what I think wonderful is this. When the Coast Guard—it was the Revenue Cutter Service then—began its patrol of the Arctic, one of the first things it did was to show the Eskimo the result of their drunken bouts. Takin' whisky to native tribes an' then teachin' 'em to let it alone is the white man's long suit.
"But the main difference between the Eskimo an' the rest of 'em, is that these tribes listened. They asked a pile o' questions an' at last agreed that the reasons given were good an' the habit was bad. Off their own bat they broke up all the stills on the coast, an' months after the clean-up a native told me that he had told his friends inland what Bertholf had said, an' that all the stills there had been destroyed, too. There's liquor enough in the south, but by the Eskimo's own choosin' there isn't a blind tiger to-day between Cape Prince of Wales, Point Barrow and Mackenzie Bay."
In consequence of this self-control on the part of the natives, the young United States Commissioner found very little strain on his judicial powers. One of the things that did trouble him was the constant request of the natives to get married. The problem seemed so difficult that he asked advice from the first lieutenant, who, many years before, had been Commissioner on a similar assignment to that of Eric.
"I don't like marrying these natives, sir," he said, "because, so far as I can make out, they haven't any idea of the legal end of it. I've been talking to Ahyatlogok, a bridegroom, and he really doesn't intend to do anything more than try out the bride for a season, Eskimo fashion, to see if he likes her. And if he doesn't and they both want to separate, if I've married them, they can't."
"Ahyatlogok's not rich enough to take that long trip to Nome to get a divorce. It's a year's journey, nearly. And unless he does, next time the Bear comes up he'll be a criminal. And yet he'll have done just what his father did before him and nearly all his neighbors are doing."
"Mr. Swift," the senior officer answered, with a slight twinkle in his eye, "do you tie a granny knot in a reef-point?"
"No, sir, never!" exclaimed Eric in surprise.
"Because a granny knot jams, and a reef-point may have to be untied."
"There's your answer," said the first lieutenant, smiling as he turned away.
With these constant small matters and with all the excitements of his trip through the Arctic, Eric's summer passed rapidly. After having touched Point Barrow, the Bear came south, landing supplies at Cape Lisburne and returning to Nome. As certain repairs to the machinery were needed, and as her coal bunkers were growing empty, the Bear headed to the southward for Unalaska.
The cutter was within half a day's steaming of the port when the radio began to buzz and buzz loudly, answering the call of a vessel in distress off Chirikof Island. As the steamer was known to be carrying a number of passengers, thus endangered, the Bear did not stop at Unalaska, but putting on full speed, arrived off Cape Sarichef Lighthouse at 4 o'clock in the morning, proceeding through Unimak Pass and Inside Passage. The naval radio station from Unalga Island confirmed the report, but could give no further details.
Under full speed the Bear reached the scene of the disaster the next day. Of the vessel, Oregon Queen, not a sign could be seen, but, save for three persons, all the crew and passengers were safe on Chirikof Island. They were almost without food, however—many of them insufficiently clad and utterly destitute. As the Oregon Queen had been bound for St. Paul, Kodiak Island, and a large number of the passengers could depend upon assistance there, the Bear picked them up, and the day following, despite extraordinary weather conditions, landed them at St. Paul. Little did the shipwrecked men realize that they had only escaped one danger to be imperilled by another.
"Homer," said Eric to his friend the following afternoon, as the Bear lay outside the barge St. James at the wharf at St. Paul, "what do you make of that cloud to the sou'west'ard?"
"Snow," was the terse reply.
"I don't," the boy objected. "It's a mighty queer-looking sort of cloud. It doesn't look a bit like anything I've ever seen before."
"There's lots of things you've never seen," was his friend's reply.
"That's one of them," the boy answered gravely, not at all in his friend's jovial vein. "But I don't think it's snow. There's something awfully queer about it. Gives me the shivers, somehow! It looks too solid for snow!"
Minutes passed. Little by little a curious feeling of unrest began to spread over the ship. The sailors stopped in their work to glance up at the strange and menacing cloud. Its edges were black with an orange fringing, and as clean cut as though it were some gigantic plate being moved across the sky. In the distance there was a low rumble, as of thunder.
The portent rose slowly. Almost an hour passed before the cloud was half-way up the zenith. Shortly before two bells in the first dog watch, Eric, passing his hand along the rail, realized that it was covered with a fine coat of dust. This was not black, like coal dust, but a light gray.
"Say, Homer," he said, "that's ashes."
"Forest fire somewhere," said the other.
"No," said Eric, "it looks like pumice-stone."
"Volcanic, I'll bet," said the other, with a quickened interest. He scooped up a pinch of the fine dust and looked at it. "It's volcanic, sure enough. There must be a big eruption somewhere!"
"I wish it were right handy near by," said Eric; "I've never seen an eruption."
"You talk as if they were as frequent as moving pictures," said the other. "But there's trouble somewhere, you can lay to that. And it's not far off, either! See, there's another cloud coming up from the nor'ard!"
Steadily, and with a slowness that only increased its threatening aspect, the cloud to the northward joined the vast overhanging canopy that had been seen earlier in the day. By half-past six in the evening it was black as the densest night, the murk only being lighted by the constant flashes of lightning. The air was highly electrified and the wireless was made silent. During the evening the island was shaken by many light earthquake shocks and several people from St. Paul came to take refuge on the Bear. At midnight a fine dust was falling steadily, but by six bells of the middle watch it had lessened and when the sun rose the next morning, he could be seen as a dull red ball. The air was still full of dust and ash, but the eruption was believed to be over.
Early in the morning scores of people came to the ship for drinking-water, many of the streams and wells in the village having been choked. About five inches of ashes had fallen. The captain of the Bear started the evaporators going, to provide drinking-water for the folk ashore.
Shortly before noon the ashes began to fall again, even more heavily than before. When Eric came up from below after lunch, the air was so full of a heavy gritty ash that it was impossible to see the length of the ship. The Bear was evidently in a place of danger and there was no means of determining what was happening or what would happen.
"Do you suppose we'll strike out to sea?" queried Eric of his friend. "We ought to, for safety, but I don't see how we can leave the place unprotected."
"We'd never do that," replied the other. "Things don't work out that way in the Coast Guard. You'll see. We'll stick here till the last gun's fired."
It was a relief to Eric when at three o'clock that afternoon he was ordered to accompany a shore party. All hands had been on duty since seven that morning, and when Eric went ashore the sailors were keeping regular shifts with shovels, clearing the decks, while four streams of water from the fire mains were playing incessantly in an effort to clear the ship of its horrible burden.
More than once, when the rain of volcanic debris grew especially heavy, the men fell behind, work as hard as they might. Herein lay real danger, for if the deck-load of ashes grew too heavy the Bear might turn turtle. Then all hope of rescue would be lost.
The captain of the Bear summoned a meeting of the principal citizens. He sent to the two saloons in the village and finding that they were crowded, requested the proprietors to close. This they did without demur, realizing that at a time of such peculiar danger, when no one knew what had happened, what was happening, or where the next outbreak might come, it was necessary for everybody to be on the alert.
Through the afternoon the darkness increased into a horrid gloom far worse than the darkest night. Men collided with each other working about the decks, for the feeble glow of electric lights and lanterns was deadened by the yellowish compost so that they could not be seen five feet away. When nightfall came, no one knew, it had been scarcely less dark at three o'clock in the afternoon than at midnight. All night long men worked steadily in shifts, clearing away the ash. Ashore the conditions were equally terrifying and all night long the bell of the Russian Church boomed out in the blackness. There were few of its followers who did not grope their way to the building at some time during that awful night.
Sunrise and the coming of daylight passed unseen and unnoticed. Only chronometers and watches served to tell the change from night to day. The three pilots of the place were summoned to discuss the possibility of getting the Bear safely out to sea, with all the population of the village on board. As every landmark was obliterated, and as the ship's bow could not be seen from the bridge, not one of the pilots would undertake to con the ship through the narrow channel.
Somewhere the sun was shining, but not a glint of light passed the impenetrable veil overhead. Still the sailors worked steadily, shoveling off the ash over the vessel's side, still the pumps worked, though now the water brought up from the harbor was like gruel and scarcely could be forced through the pipes. Every few minutes, from the hills around the village, avalanches of ashes could be heard, the terrible clouds of debris flying over the town and adding to the choking smother.
Orders were given for all people to gather on the vessel or the wharf. By ten o'clock the last of the gray ash-covered ghosts was mustered in, 185 people on the vessel, 149 in the warehouse on the wharf. Blinded by ash, with throats so burned by the acrid fumes that even a hoarse whisper was agony, with nostrils bleeding from constant effort to keep them from being clogged with the fine dust, and with a stabbing pain in the lungs with every breath one drew, the people were at the extremity of their endurance. The situation looked desperate both for the residents and for the officers and crew of the Coast Guard cutter.
The officers of the Bear worked incessantly. In the dark they were here, there and everywhere, and Eric, filled with the spirit of the service, was on the jump. He was busy in the storehouse shortly before eleven o'clock in the morning when a man groped his way in, saying that he had just escaped an avalanche and that several men were marooned in a steamer lying off the cannery wharf half a mile below the dock. This was Eric's chance. So often had he made the trip from the ship to the storehouse that morning that even in the dark and through the flying spume of yellow horror he made his way direct to the first lieutenant, and saluted.
"Yes, Mr. Swift?"
"I have information, sir," he said, "that there are seven men cut off either in a steamer near the cannery, or in the cannery itself, half a mile below the pier. I am told there is neither food nor water in the building and that it is at the base of a hill from which it may be overwhelmed by an avalanche at any minute. I think, sir, that a party could reach them."
The lieutenant nodded and sought the captain. He returned a few moments later.
"There are high hills between the village and the cannery," he said, "and the road winds along the beach. We have absolutely no means of knowing what the conditions may be. Under the circumstances the captain does not feel justified in ordering a party on what might prove to be their death. But—"
"He directed me to say that neither would he feel justified in refusing permission to those who desired to attempt a rescue. If there should be volunteers, I have no doubt that you would be given the opportunity to lead the party."
Eric saluted, though in that dim strange dark he could scarcely see his superior's face, and withdrew. In spite of the unknown nature of the ordeal not a man drew back. Eric chose his friend, Homer, two warrant officers, three enlisted men, one local resident for a guide, and the master of the imperilled steamer.
The road was level, the distance only half a mile, but so great was the danger of ash avalanches that every man was roped to the other—all carried lanterns and there were several shovels.
"Hope we don't get buried under this stuff!" Eric whispered to Homer, as they started out.
"I feel just about buried now," was the hoarse reply.
At the end of the score of houses that made the village street, the party struck a deep drift of the volcanic ash. It took the guide to his waist and he stumbled and fell. The fine acrid pumice filled his mouth and his nostrils, and when Eric picked him up, he feared the man would strangle to death. A mouthful of fresh air would have meant much to the sufferer, but there was nothing but the sulphur-laden atmosphere to breathe. In a minute or two, however, choking and gasping, the guide cleared his nasal passages and throat of the burning dust. Blinded and staggering, he recovered enough to be able to walk, but Eric took his place and led the way.
Warned by this accident, which had so nearly proved a fatality, the boy proceeded with extreme caution, digging a shovel before him every step to make sure that the ashes did not hide some newly opened earthquake crevice into which the party might fall. Under the slope of the mountainous shores the swirling spume of gray-yellow dust was so dense and yet so light in weight that the men struggled in ashes to their waists, and it was hard to tell where earth ended and air began. It was as though the earth had no surface. Unconsciously Eric found himself using the motions of swimming, in order to cleave his way through the semi-solid dust.
Suddenly, as Eric prodded the ground before him, the shovel went through with a jolt, almost precipitating the boy on his face. Had it not been for the slowness and the care with which he was advancing, he might have had the same fate as the guide. Lifting up the spade, what was his horror to find that it was wet!
With quick alarm Eric realized that the rescue party was in the utmost peril. They had wandered from the shore and were in very truth within a few inches of disaster. They were walking on the sea! The layer of floating ash, though several feet thick, was but a treacherous surface which might break through at any moment and land them in the water below. There, certain death awaited them, for they would smother and drown under the hideous pall. With his heart in his throat Eric turned sharply to the right, trusting only to a vague sense of direction. A score of steps brought him to a slight billowing of the ash, and with a sigh of relief he knew he was on solid ground again.
The danger was little less upon the shore. Huge avalanches could be heard hurtling down the mountain-side and with each new slide the air became, if possible, more unbreathable than before. A new fear possessed the lad. It might be that they would return alive to the ship, but might not every member of the party be made helpless for life by the clogging of the lung-passages with dust?
Presently he felt a tug at the line which roped the members of the party together, and he stopped.
"What's the trouble?" he passed back word.
"Duncan's gone under, sir."
Eric made an uncomplimentary reference to Duncan under his breath, then questioned,
Came back the answer,
"Yes, sir; completely collapsed."
The boy was puzzled what to do. He could detach two members of the party to carry back the unconscious sailor, but that would reduce his strength from eight men to five. He could not leave the man alone, for if he lay on the ground for even ten minutes, he would be covered with volcanic ash and could never be found again.
"The two men nearest on the line pick Duncan up and bring him along," he ordered, and the party proceeded.
They had covered another hundred yards, when overhead they heard a fearful roar. In the murk and blinding confusion no one could tell what new peril was threatening, but a piece of pumice almost the size of an apple came whistling down, midway of the party. One of the sailors, with great presence of mind, whipped out his sheath knife and cut the rope, shouting,
"Forward! Quick as you can!" then doubled on those behind him, crying, "Back! Back!"
He was not a moment too soon, for full between the two halves of the party came a pouring torrent of ash. Its greasy and slippery character made it flow almost like water, though sending up clouds of dust. Choking and blinded, the rear members of the party gave back. While they waited, not knowing whether the whole mountain side might not plunge down upon them, Duncan gasped and came to.
Meantime, Eric passed back word to see how the rest of the party had fared. What was his horror to hear, from the fourth man in the line,
"No one back o' me, sir. An' the line's been cut through. Not broken, sir; cut clean!"
"Right about and go back," ordered Eric. "We've got to find the rest of them!"
"Beg your pardon, sir, but I can't."
"There's a Niagerer of stuff comin' down the mounting, sir, and no one could stand up agin it for a minnit."
"Shout, then, and try if you can hear the others."
The sailor shouted, and then called to Eric,
"Yes, sir, there's an answerin' hail." Then, a moment later, "They say everything's all right. Four of them's there, sir, and Duncan's come around."
The rushing "whoosh" of the ash-slide began to lessen, and presently, gallantly plowing through the still sliding pumice, came the first sailor. The rope was knotted and the party went on. A quarter of an hour later they reached the cannery. The Redondo was lying anchored off the cannery wharf and Eric managed to attract the attention of the crew and get them to launch their boat. The boat pulled in as close to the beach as possible, until it was fast in the ash, then a line was thrown to the shore and the boat pulled in, though the last fifteen feet were like thick porridge. The seven men were brought along the beach and returned to the vessel. Not a sign remained of the trail the party had made on its outward trip.
It had taken three hours for the rescue, and as soon as the eight men reached the vessel, they gave way. Even Eric was compelled to put himself in the hands of the ship's surgeon. The doctors, one from the ship and one from the village, had been working night and day. Hollow-eyed and unsleeping, they continued their task of reviving people suffocated by the fumes or strangled with ashes. More than one worker had collapsed utterly as the result of an unceasing fight against the volcanic fiery rain.
In the afternoon of that third day the sky began to clear and by three o'clock objects became dimly visible. Absolute dark gave place to an orange-brown light, under which, every object, cloaked in a mask of ashes, looked horribly unfamiliar. It was like waking into a new world where nothing would ever be the same.
The slight tremblings of the earth increased, and almost at the same time as the clearing of the sky, there was a serious shake. On board the Bear the trouble was not so noticeable, but ashore the occupants of the storehouse fled in terror, crying that the building would fall on them. Their fears were not without justification, for the big frame building creaked and swayed in an alarming manner.
This decided the matter. Every one was somehow stowed on board the Bear and at slow speed, only enough to give steerage way, with two leads going, and the oldest and most experienced pilot in the bow to con her through the narrow channel, the cutter made her way out safely. She anchored in the outer harbor, fortunately having secured a bearing from Woody Island, whereby she could run out to sea by compass course should conditions warrant. This also gave an opportunity to relieve the suffering on Woody Island, and 104 persons were brought on board, making 486 people to be fed from the supplies handled by the Bear. It was incredible how so many could be accommodated, but the organization was perfect.
The night was spent in great suspense; but Eric, who had been relieved from duty, slept through it. It was noon before he finally wakened, to find a bright sunlit sky and a ship clear of ashes. In the afternoon, as the effects of the eruption cleared away, three expeditions were sent to Woody Island, to St. Paul, and to the neighboring islands. Eric was sent with the Redondo on the rescue party that was headed for Afognak.
There it was learned that the eruption had come from Mount Katmai, on the mainland of the Alaska Peninsula, opposite Kodiak Island, and that there were people in distress in the region of the volcano. Without an instant's delay the Redondo was headed out of the harbor, and despite a dense fog, she was run through the Kupreanoff Straits and across Shelikoff Straits to Kaflia Bay.
At half-past two in the morning, the Redondo dropped anchor near the volcano, and as soon as it grew light, Eric was sent to head a landing party. Every hut was covered with ashes, and a native, pointing to one of the drifts, said it was as high as "five houses," or about fifty feet high. All the streams were buried; there was not a drop of liquid of any kind, and the villagers had lived in the tortures of that ash-choked air for three days, waterless. Two were delirious from thirst, all were at the point of exhaustion when the Coast Guard men appeared to save them.
With her engines throbbing at their utmost speed, the Redondo passed from point to point of the stricken coast, saving over fourscore lives that a half a day's delay would have rendered too late to save. When the dusk of that day deepened into evening, the Redondo turned homeward from those shrouded shores, bearing to safety the homeless victims of the peninsula and islands close at hand.
Still in the far distance rumbled the defeated earthquake, still upon the sky was reflected the lurid glow of the volcano, which, through the daring and the courage of the Coast Guard men, claimed not a single victim.
DEFYING THE TEMPEST'S VIOLENCE
"I've been wondering," said Eric to Homer, a few days after his rescue trip on the Redondo, "what we're going to do with all these natives. We can't take them back to the Katmai country. They just about live on fish and everything that swims was killed during the eruption. How are they going to exist? It'll be years before the fish come back."
"I can tell you all about that," his friend replied. "You know the commanding officer of the Bering Sea fleet came up, while you were away?"
"Yes, you told me."
"I heard all about the plans which the department had approved, on his suggestion. A new village is going to be built at the place which the Coast Guard picks out along the shore as being the best site for a town. It's going to be a regularly laid out place, with sanitary arrangements and everything else complete."
"Give them all a new start, eh?"
"That's it, exactly. One of the other ships of the fleet is cruising now along the coast to pick out the best spot. We're to send a carpenter ashore there and leave him for the winter to look after the erection of igloos. He'll be in charge of enough supplies to last the settlement till spring."
"Whereabouts is this town going to be?" asked the boy.
"It's not definitely decided yet," was the reply, "but probably it'll be on Stepnovak Bay. It'll be quite a place, too, because it'll start out with a population of over 500 natives, maybe a thousand."
"That's a metropolis for Alaska," agreed Eric.
"And, what's more," continued the young engineer, "they're going to give the new town the name of 'Perry,' in honor of our skipper, as the department said, for 'recognition of his heroic services at the time of the eruption.'"
As soon as arrangements for the wintering of the homeless natives had been completed, the Bear returned to Unalaska and thence made one more trip to Nome on business connected with the Federal Courts at that place. Then, as winter was closing in, the Coast Guard cutter stood out to sea up toward the Bering Straits, to await the outcoming of the several vessels in the whaling fleet, and make sure of the safety of every American sailor in the Arctic. The last of the whalers cleared the straits on October 29, and on the following day the Bear started on her southerly course, leaving the Arctic to its annual eight months of unvisited silence.
Eric had wondered a good deal what assignment or appointment he would get for the winter. Great was his delight to find that both he and his chum had been assigned to the Miami, and were to report for duty on December tenth. The extra couple of days allowed him on the journey across the continent gave the boy a chance to visit his relatives in San Francisco, and he also managed it so that he took a short run up to Detroit to see his family and to have a chat with his old friend, the puzzle-maker.
He found the Miami to be a beauty. Unlike the Bear, which depended as much on sails as on steam, the Miami was well-engined. Almost the first thing that struck Eric when he came to go over her arrangements was her unusually large coal and water capacity.
"No wonder she can stay out for months at a time on ice patrol, or chasing up a derelict," said Eric; "she's got coal enough for a trip around the world!"
"Wouldn't mind if she was going to," said Homer, with a grin.
Eric shook his head.
"Not for mine," he answered; "I've a notion there's enough going on right around here. Anyhow, the Gulf of Mexico will feel good after a norther like this," and he shivered in his uniform, for the wind was nipping.
"How would it feel to be somewhere around Point Barrow now?" his friend suggested.
"It might be all right if a fellow were used to it, and dressed for it. At that, I don't believe I'd want to put in a whole winter up in that country. It isn't so much the actual cold I'd hate as it would be having to stay indoors half the time because it was too cold to go outside." He sniffed the salt air. "Guess my folks have been sea-dogs too many hundred years for me to cotton to anything that means indoors."
"Me, too," said his chum. "From what I know about the Miami, what's more, I don't believe we're going to spend too much time ashore. When are we sailing, have you heard?"
"Day after to-morrow, I believe," Eric replied. "We're going right down to our southern station."
"Yes, and Florida waters as far north as Fernandina," was the answer.
"The sooner the quicker, so far as I'm concerned," said the other, as they strolled below.
Two days later the Miami was steaming down Chesapeake Bay. The weather was ugly and there was a little cross-current that kept the cutter dancing. Eric had his sea legs, after his summer on the Bear, but he was surprised to find how different was the motion of a steamer and a sailing ship. The other junior lieutenant, whom he had already come to like rather well, laughed as Eric stumbled at a particularly vicious roll.
"This isn't anything," he said. "Wait until we strike the edge of the Gulf Stream. Then she's apt to kick up her heels a bit. And you ought to see the Yamacraw! She's got any of these modern dances pushed off the map!"
"I don't mind it," Eric answered, "only it's a different kind of roll. I'm just off the Bear. She rolls enough, but it's a longer sort of roll, not short jerks like this."
"Of course," said the other, nodding; "bound to be. A ship under sail is more or less heeled over and she's kept steady by the pressure of the wind on the sail. The long roll you're talking about isn't the sea, but the gustiness of the wind. That's what makes the long roll."
"At that," said Eric, "it seems to me that the Miami's pretty lively now for all the sea there is."
"There's more sea than you'd reckon," was the reply. "Chesapeake Bay can kick up some pretty didoes when in the mood. You'd never believe how suddenly a storm can strike, nor how much trouble it can make. You see that skeleton lighthouse over there?"
"Yes," said the boy. "Smith's Point, isn't it? I remember learning all these lights by heart," and he rattled off a string of names, being the lights down Chesapeake Bay.
"I see you haven't forgotten the Academy yet," said the other. "Yes, that's Smith's Point Tower. And while it's not a particularly imposing looking sort of building, it's a very important light. It was when they came to build that light, they found out what Chesapeake Bay can be like. Aside from some of the really big lighthouses like Minot's Ledge, Smith's Point gave as much trouble to build as any lighthouse on the United States coast."
"Bad weather and natural difficulties," said the other. "My father was the designer, and because Mother was dead, Father and I used to be together all the time. I was a small shaver of twelve years of age at the time so I was right in the thick of it."
"Tell the yarn," pleaded Eric.
The lieutenant smiled at the boy's eagerness, but filled his pipe and began.
"Right opposite Smith's Point," he said, "on the Virginia shore, the tides and currents at the mouth of the Potomac River and at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay have built out a shoal which, if you remember your chart, you will recall juts out in the bay over nine miles from the land. The same tides had scoured Smith's Island on the other hand—port side going out of the bay, but there are some nasty rocks in the channel. It's a tricky spot, that Smith's Point Shoal, and many a good vessel has gone to pieces on it.
"It was the wreck of the barque Mary Louise that drew public attention to Smith's Point. She struck the shoal and went down with all hands. Less than two hours after she sank, a steamer came along and hit the wreckage. The steamer was so badly injured that it was only by a good deal of luck and clever handling that her captain succeeded in beaching her and saving all the passengers. The Lighthouse Board had made several recommendations for the erection of a lighthouse at that point, and when public attention had been focussed to this danger by the disaster, it was easy enough to get the appropriation through Congress. So the money was set aside and Father was given the contract of designing and erecting the lighthouse.
"By the end of the next month a huge unwieldly foundation caisson was on the ways at a shipyard in Baltimore. I was just a kid at the time, but the queer shape of this interested me right from the start. It was like a bottomless box, thirty-two feet square on the inside and twelve feet high. It was so thick that a tall man could lie down crosswise on one of the walls and stretch out his arms to the full, and then there would be several inches beyond the tips of his fingers and the ends of his feet."
"My word," said Eric, "it must have had some timber in it!"
"It had a lot of weight to support," said the other. "After a while, it was launched—I was there—and dropped into the bay near Sparrow's Point. On it were built the first two courses of the iron cylinder which was to be the lower part of the lighthouse. Although that wooden caisson weighed over a hundred tons, so heavy and solid was the cylinder that it sank the wooden structure out of sight."
"How big was the cylinder?" queried the boy.
"It was thirty feet in diameter and each of the courses was six feet high. That's twelve feet for the two courses. Inside the big cylinder was a second smaller one, like an air-shaft, five feet in diameter. A pump was rigged on the edge of the cylinder for the journey down the bay, in case any water should splash over the sides from the wake of the tug.
"When the springtime came and there was a reasonable prospect of fair weather, quite a fleet set out for Baltimore with Father and me in the leading tug. I felt as proud of myself as if I'd been an admiral! I wasn't quite sure," he added, laughing, "whether Father was the boss of the job or whether I was, myself.
"We had a large ocean-going tug towing the caisson, but we went ahead at very slow speed. Besides the big tug there were two tugs towing seven barges with the iron work, with building materials, stone, cement, and all that sort of thing. It made quite a gallant show.
"I want to tell you right now, we missed our guess when we supposed that Chesapeake Bay was being coddled by any of the softening influences of the gentle springtime! It was only lying low! It took us three days to get to the site of the lighthouse, which was marked by a buoy. We reached there on a quiet and peaceful evening, the sort that landlubber poets write about. A little after sundown it began to breeze up, and by four bells of the first watch, there was a stiffish wind, which at midnight began to climb into half a gale.
"Then the sea began to rise. It only takes a capful of wind to make things nasty on the bay, and that iron cylinder began to toss like a cork. We'd left four men aboard the cylinder and by half an hour after midnight they were pumping for their lives. There was a big searchlight on the tug and Father came tumbling up from below and ordered the searchlight turned on to the cylinder.
"I tell you, that was a sight. There was nothing to be seen in the smother but the great black iron rim rolling savagely, the white water spouting about it, and, as it heaved above the waves, the searchlight showed its black sides with the water streaming down. There, clustered at the pumps, were the four men, working like a bunch of madmen and shouting for help as the cylinder rose above the water, strangling and clinging to the pump-handles like grim death as she went under. It was for their lives that they were working, for if ever half a dozen tons of water should slop over the side of the black monster, it would sink straight to the bottom, and so great would be the suction that there was not the slightest chance that any of them would ever come up alive.