Barnegat Macreary

“Put that fellow in the lee rigging and let him chuck the lead awhile,”
said Captain Sanders. “Sink me, but he is a queer one. Where did ye say
he hailed from?”

“Hey, Peter, where did yo’ hatch?” asked the big black mate in a voice
deep and loud enough to be heard half a mile. The man he addressed was
standing near the mast explaining to the wrecking crew gathered about
him how he had once been quartermaster in a man-of-war. He looked aft
at the hail.

“I’m from the Berhammers,” said he.

“Born there?” asked the captain.

“No, I live on the Great Berhammer–I’m a sailor man, sir.”

“Put him in the lee rigging an’ let him sound across the Bank. If he
knows half as much as he says he does, he’ll see us across all right
enough. It’s getting mighty shoal now. Look at that nigger head pokin’
up yander.” And he pointed to a piece of coral that came within a few
feet of the surface of the clear blue water. The bottom was plainly
visible two fathoms below and the wrecking sloop, _Sea-Horse_, needed
at least one to go clear with the rise and fall of the sea.

“Git to lor’ard there, quartermaster, an’ heave the lead,” bawled the
mate, looking the man squarely in the eyes.

“But I shipped as a sailor—-”

“Git thar quick an’ sudden,” roared the black giant, rising from the
cuddy hatch coaming. He had heard the loud tone of the man forward
telling his latest yarn.

A look of amazement and concern came over the face of the man from
“Berhammer,” but he hesitated no longer. Seizing the lead which lay
always ready in a tub of line near the windlass, he made the lee side
and hove it far ahead.

The _Sea-Horse_ was passing over the Great Bahama Bank near its extreme
northern end, and at a part where even the mate had never been. She had
stopped off the island a few hours before to take on the stranger for
pilot and continue her way to a wreck reported on the eastern edge of
the shoal water.

“Plenty o’ water here,” he yelled, as the lead-line came perpendicular.

“How much?” asked Sanders.

The man hove again.

“Not much water here,” he cried, as the line suddenly stopped running
out.

The mate started forward, looking over the side.

“Not much water here,” called the man again.

There was a sudden jar, followed by a grinding, grating sound from
below.

“Deedn’t I tole yo’ so,” sang the fellow in an even tone, heaving the
lead again as though nothing had happened. A sounding slap from the
big mate’s hand finished proceedings in the rigging, and a volley of
oaths from Sanders, coupled with orders to get a kedge anchor out to
windward, put new life in the scene upon the sloop’s deck.

Macreary, still smarting from the big black mate’s blow upon his
stern-sheets, fell to with the rest, and by dint of much heaving upon a
new hawser bent to an anchor carried well to windward, the _Sea-Horse_
was finally hove off the bank. They were materially helped in this by
the gentle heave of the swell, which lifted the wrecking sloop easily
and dropped her with a crash at each sea.

When she floated there were several very discontented men aboard who
looked as though they would make it squally weather for the pilot
before they reached the wreck on the Bank.

The wreck of the _Ramidor_, a small Brazilian bark bound for Rio, lay
upon the edge of the Bahama Bank in about a fathom of water. She had
been driven there in a heavy gale from the eastward and had gone in
upon the shoal about a quarter of a mile, lying upon her bilge where
the sea in calm weather just broke clear of her, the wash of foam
striking against her high black sides and spurting skywards. In a heavy
sea, the break was far to windward of her, and in consequence she was
in no immediate danger of going to pieces with the smash. She had been
sighted by several wreckers, and the _Sea-Horse_ and _Buccaneer_ were
on their way to her, each hurrying with all speed to claim the salvage.
The _Buccaneer_ was at work on the Caicos Bank, and the _Sea-Horse_ at
Cape Florida when the news reached them. The former manned by English
negroes and navigated by a long, lean Yankee skipper, had stood to the
eastward and northward, coming in sight of the wreck about the time the
_Sea-Horse_, picking her way across the shoals, raised the slanting
topmasts of the _Ramidor_ beyond a dry coral bank which forced her to
make a long détour to the southward. She had taken on the pilot to
save time and cut across the shoal places as close as possible, and he
had run them ashore most ignominiously when within ten miles of their
destination.

Macreary finished coiling down the hawser after the kedge was hoisted
aboard, and then he joined the rest who sat upon the hatch. He was much
abashed at heart, but tried not to show it, swaggering with a careless
air among the men who glared at him.

“Blamed fine quartermaster you make,” snarled one; “must have been on
one o’ them ten-foot sand barges wot takes offal to sea an’ dumps it. I
once knowed a fellar like you wot was quartermaster o’ one.”

“Capting, too, hey?” growled a Swede. “Crew were a yaller dawg?”

“Where did yo’ learn pilotin’?” asked a Conch, grinning and spitting
as close to the pilot’s toes as he could without hitting them.

“I’m learning it now,” said Macreary, cheerfully, sitting down and
gazing over the sea to where the tiny speck of the bark’s topmast
showed above the horizon. He was not going to show how absurd and
mean he felt to that crowd, so he sat and gazed apparently calm and
unruffled, without a sign of the burning shame which seemed to stifle
him.

He was now silent and thinking. There was a short cut along a narrow
and tortuous channel which would let the vessel out to sea close to the
point of the dry coral bank, or end of Cay. He thought he might know
it, although he had only been through twice before. The wreck lay only
a few miles beyond, and even now the white glint of the rival wrecker’s
sails showed plainly that he would board the prize first and claim the
salvage. But the memory of the big black mate’s hand was too strong
upon him, and he kept silent. The _Sea-Horse_ was working up behind the
reef and it was noticeable how smooth and sheltered the sea was in its
lee. It would make a fine harbour for a vessel caught working upon the
wreck in a heavy easterly, if she could navigate the channel. But the
master of the _Sea-Horse_ knew nothing of the channel, and he would
have sooner thrown the pilot overboard than trusted him again. He stood
out behind the Cay and made a good offing, reaching well off into the
open ocean in spite of the fact that he would have ten miles further to
go.

But Macreary sat silent and watched the horizon where the black speck
rose. He was not thinking about the wreck. To him it was nothing
whether a Conch or two should make a little money from the disaster
of a sailor. His thoughts were back with the strange men he had left
upon the Cay of the Great Bahama, the little band led by the tall and
muscular Jones, leader of the Sanctified people who sought refuge from
the strife of the world upon the sun-beaten reefs of the Bahama Bank.

Jones had taught him to read. Jones had read to him from the Book of
all Books, the relic of an ancient literature, revised, rewritten and
put together in somewhat disconnected pieces, the Bible of the most
enlightened people upon the face of the world. And in it he had heard
the words of wisdom as set down by men who had gone before, men who
had lived their lives and who had learned from experience. And the
philosophy of these men he believed was true, for they had lived their
lives out and had left behind them the results of years of life. It
was not the one tale of a single man, which must necessarily be narrow
and worthless, but it was the gatherings of the teachings of many who
had been in positions to learn. Yes, what Jones had read him was the
philosophy of ages. And Jones had read to him, “Hide not thy light
under a bushel,” and he had told him that it meant to use what talents
he possessed, to try to do what he thought he was able to–and not hang
back. He felt abashed and ashamed beyond expression at his failure,
for he had believed he was a fit pilot over the Bank. He founded his
belief upon the fact that he had gone fishing many times in a small
skiff in the vicinity of the island and had twice gone southward along
the edge of the Bank; he had noticed many times how the water shoaled
from the deep ocean to the white water of the coral reef. It was hard
to account for his failure, he thought, with men aboard who must have
seen the bottom as plainly as he, himself, could–and then the big
black man’s mortifying stroke—-

The vessels stood toward the wreck under the impetus of the easterly
breeze, the _Buccaneer_, a point free, raced up and let go her anchor
close under the bark’s lee in just enough water to float. Then her
skipper putting forth in a small boat boarded the _Ramidor_ just as
the _Sea-Horse_ came through the breakers on the edge of the Bank. She
cleared the bottom by a few inches, although the wash of the sea swept
her decks and drenched the men standing by to take in the mainsail
and let go the hook. Sanders ran her well in behind the wreck and
rounded to, scraping up the sand with the keel, and anchored behind the
_Buccaneer_. It was close work and a heavy sea would drop both vessels
heavily upon the reef. They must make good use of the smooth water, and
Sanders hailed his lucky rival to get what he could.

“See ye got a wrack there,” said he, calling to the long Yankee
skipper, who smiled at him from the bark’s quarter-deck.

“Talk like ye never see it afore. Wonder ye didn’t notice it bein’ as
ye were headin’ this way. Strange how these Dagoes pile up thar ships,”
answered the skipper of the _Buccaneer_.

“Don’t suppose ye want to whack up, hey? An’ have us turn to an’ help
with the cargo?”

The long skipper squirted a stream of tobacco juice over the side in
derision.

“I reckon ye think we’re out here fer our health, hey?” he roared.
“What d’ye think we’re doin’ around here anyways? I want to let ye know
right sudden that this wrack is mine–ye keep off. Ye know what will
happen if there’s any monkey business. I won’t stand any foolishness.”

“‘Twouldn’t do fo’ toe nab him, hey?” asked the black mate of the
_Sea-Horse_, turning to his captain. “We kin take him, sho’, an’ make a
divide with it. We got here about the same time he did.”

“I’m afeard we better not,” said Sanders. “Too many witnesses–they’ll
swear they got here first–I’ve a notion to pitch that pilot overboard.”

The beaten sloop lay all that day off the wreck, her crew fuming and
her captain and mate trying to devise some means to get a hold upon the
bark. At dark Sanders rowed over to the _Buccaneer_ and tried every
means from bluff to bribery to get in a claim, but the _Buccaneer’s_
crew held out solidly. Finally they compromised matters by signing on
as labourers at a dollar and a half per day to help the _Buccaneer’s_
crew to work the wreck. It was the best they could do for the present
and they went sullenly to work with the hope something would turn up to
favour them.

Two days passed and the bright summer weather held. The sea was smooth
as glass and the wreckers lay in safety. Far away to the northward the
glint of the dry coral bank showed at low water. Nothing else broke the
eternal blue line of the horizon.

Macreary was not turned to with the rest but kept aboard the
_Sea-Horse_ as ship-keeper. He helped cook the meals and was kept
busy with cleaning. As he was alone a good deal, he spent much time
in gazing over the sea, figuring on the channel which led five or six
miles to the northward to the deep water behind the dry bank. If they
had only let him try it, he might have worked them through in time.
It was crooked, worse than a letter S to sail through, but the bark
was worth several thousand dollars to the salvors–and he had lost. He
would have been well paid if they had made her in time.

The crew of the _Sea-Horse_ took some pains to tell the wreckers how it
was the fault of their pilot that they lost. The Conchs laughed at him
in derision whenever they boarded the sloop at meal times, and he was
so much set upon by both crews that he begged Sanders to put him aboard
the first vessel sighted. The third day two more wrecking vessels came
upon the scene, but as the bark was now pretty well stripped, the
salvors would have none of them. One of the strangers stood away, but
the other came to anchor, leaving her mainsail up ready to go at a
moment’s notice.

“Hey, don’t ye want a pilot?” asked the long skipper of the
_Buccaneer_, calling to the stranger. His hail was the cause of much
amusement to the two working crews. They stopped and looked over at the
little vessel, whose three men sat in a row upon her rail watching the
wreck.

“We’ve the best pilot on the bank,” said Sanders, trying to hide his
sarcasm by a frown. “We thought maybe as ye ware goin’ on ye might want
him.”

“I reckon I’ll take him,” said one of the three. “I ain’t goin’ no
farther’n th’ Bahama, an’ ef he don’t mind he can take us across the
Bank.”

“Git him,” said Sanders, “there he is,” and he pointed to the
_Sea-Horse_ where Macreary sat fishing. Then all hands had a good laugh
and went on with their work, hiding their amusement from the strangers.
It would be a good joke. They would have the pleasure of seeing the
vessel piled up before she drew out of sight.

The three men on the new arrival were in no hurry. They fished a little
while and finally one of them rowed across the twenty fathoms of
intervening water to Macreary, who had heard the conversation and was
ready. As he dropped into the small boat he looked to the southward and
noticed a heavy bank of cloud rising. He said nothing until aboard the
sloop and then asked to look at the glass. It was falling rapidly.

“There’ll be a bit o’ dirty weather comin’,” he said, as he came on
deck and joined the fishermen.

“Is there air harbour round erbouts?” asked Captain James, baiting his
hook. He was in no hurry to get under way.

“There’s good water behind that cay up yander,” said Macreary.

“How fer?”

“‘Bout five mile.”

“All right, we’ll start just afore dark–kin make it in thirty or fo’ty
minutes with a breeze, hey?”

“I reckon,” said Macreary, looking anxiously at the weather to the
southward. Then they hauled up fish for a couple of hours until the
sunshine turned a brassy colour and finally died away as the cloud bank
covered the western sky.

The men aboard the bark began to get nervous. Sanders went aboard
the _Sea-Horse_ with his mate and they hoisted the mainsail close
reefed, making ready to get to sea in case of trouble. The skipper of
the _Buccaneer_ finally knocked off also, and soon the clanking of
windlasses broke the silence of the tropical evening. They were getting
ready to get away at the first shift to the eastward, for the sea would
break heavily where they lay in a strong wind. There was much to carry
away, but they would take no chances. The most valuable part of the
wreck’s belongings were already on deck waiting to be transferred to
the _Buccaneer_, and she would lie by with a man aboard the bark to
watch and take charge.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it blowed,” said Captain James of the
little sloop _Seabird_. “I reckon we’ll stop fishin’ an’ pull out afore
it’s too hot. I wouldn’t keer to be the man left in thet bark, hey?”

“If they abandon her, it’s fair play all over agin to the first man
what gets aboard,” said one of his men. “I don’t believe the wessel is
badly hurt, anyways.”

The heavy bank of cloud rose rapidly. A flash of lightning lit the
gloom of the evening and the edge of the pall swept past overhead. It
was travelling rapidly. To the southward the growing darkness seemed
to melt into the blackness above like a smooth black wall of mist. A
murmur of unrest came over the sea, a weird far-reaching cry vibrating
through the quiet atmosphere, rising and falling like the distant
voices of a vast host.

Sanders, who had signed on his men as helpers, could gain nothing by
staying. He had signed away his future rights, therefore he lost no
time in getting up his anchor and standing out to sea with his canvas
shortened for trouble and everything being made snug.

The _Buccaneer_ crew were struggling with as much gear as they could
carry to get it aboard their ship before the sea began to make if it
blew. All hands were overside hurrying the work, and even the two men
who were to remain aboard to take charge were helping and had left
the bark’s deck when a line of white showed to the southward upon the
black sea. There was a puff of wind, cool and whirling as though it
had dropped from some great height in the realms of snow. The surface
of the heaving swell ruffled, a blinding flash of fire followed by a
crash; then a few moments of silence broken gradually by a deep-toned
roar growing louder and louder. The line of white bore down upon the
vessels, and as it came the darkness grew blacker. There was a fierce
rush of wind, and with a burst as though fired from a gun, the blast of
the squall struck the vessels and bore them prone with its sweep.

The _Buccaneer’s_ mainsail tore to bits as she lay upon her beam ends,
her anchor parted, and in a moment she was going out to sea, every
man aboard of her struggling with the flying strips of canvas. The
wind had come from the southward and with just enough slant to allow
her to clear the shoal water and make the open ocean. Macreary, with
nothing to do but watch the coming squall, let go the halliards of the
_Seabird’s_ sail, and her crew had managed to get a line around it
before the weight of the wind struck. The captain reached the wheel and
managed to pay her off somehow, dragging the anchor which had been hove
short as though it were a bit of iron hanging to the line. Then handing
the spokes to his pilot, he pointed to the northward, where the dry
bank of the cay had just disappeared in the storm.

“Git in–behind–harbour,” he bawled, and as the words came brokenly
above the roar, Macreary knew he meant to run the crooked channel for
harbour behind the reef.

The two men hove up the anchor while the _Seabird_ tore along ten
knots with nothing save her mast to pull with the wind. Macreary swung
her first this way and then that, blindly, stupidly, and unreasoning,
but with rising hopes as the wind beat down the sea into an almost
level plain of water white as milk. He held her north by west, making
as much westing as he could, blindly hoping to make enough inside the
reef to clear the end of the bank and gain the shelter beyond. All was
blackness ahead and there was no way of telling when he reached the
dry bank; no way of telling when he should round her to and drop both
anchors with every fathom bent on to hold them, but he kept on.

“Hide not thy light under a bushel,” came the words of the tall
preacher! They seemed to flit before his half-blinded vision. He who
must make a living at something would do it at what he thought he could
do best. He must surely know more about those waters than the Conchs
who lived to the southward, for he had fished upon them for two years.
His ideas about piloting were vague and absurd, but he did not know it.
It seemed to him that all he must do was to show the way the best he
could, and it was not in keeping with the teachings to hold back. It
would be more immodest to feign ignorance of the banks than to admit a
knowledge of them. He had known people who were so backward that they
always waited to be sought out by others and pressed to do things,
which by all nature they should have offered to do at once. To him
these people were truly immodest and their very quietness seemed to
savour of a tremendous egotism. They seemed so satisfied and complacent
in their knowledge, so superior that unless they were flattered by
being sought out and offered a handsome reward, they would rather carry
their wisdom to the grave than offer it. It was “hiding a light under a
bushel,” in the sense the tall man of the Sanctified Band of pilgrims
taught it.

The wind drove the little vessel wildly before it. The sea began to
make astern, and as he turned his face to look backward a spurt of
spray and foam half-choked him. The roar of the gale grew louder. The
captain’s voice came brokenly to him through the gloom, and he saw him
standing close to the companion hatch gazing ahead and holding on with
both hands, his face thrust forward and his sou’wester pushed back as
though to aid him to see some mark to steer by to safety.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes flew by. If they missed the shelter of the
reef and the deep water behind it, they would certainly pile up on the
shoals beyond, where the sea would fall with tremendous violence in
less than an hour. Already the lift astern was growing quicker and the
white plain of water was rolling up into a dangerous sea. He swung the
little vessel hard to port, thinking to find better water, and as he
did so she took the ground heavily, throwing her captain with force
against the coamings.

“Keep her off–breakers–windward,” came the cry as from a great
distance.

He rolled the wheel up mechanically and she was tearing away again into
the darkness, going clear as though she had touched soft mud instead of
hard coral rock.

A burst of wind tore over them with a droning roar. The little vessel
lay down to the pressure. Then gathering herself upon a sea she rushed
ahead.

The blackness grew thicker. Macreary could hardly see the loom of the
mast forward. Then a flickering flare of lightning lit the storm and
right ahead showed a strip of dry yellow sand. It was a mile off yet,
but they were going fast. Macreary hove the wheel to port and kept it
there until the little ship buried her starboard deck-strake in the
foam.

“Will–make–” came the voice of the captain.

Macreary did not know whether she would or not, but he would try to,
and setting his teeth hard he gave up all thought of answer. The
minutes flew by. He knew they were going fast. They would go a mile in
five minutes even with the lessened headway of the reaching vessel. How
could he guess the time in that awful turmoil of roaring wind and sea?
He waited and waited. She must be nearly there. The strain was getting
awful. Would he go past? He must be up with the point now–but no, he
would hold her a minute longer. It must be made or lost in one throw
of that wheel, and to lose it meant death to all hands. The blackness
ahead was solid. No eye could penetrate it ten feet. Oh, for another
flash of lightning!

“Will she–” came the voice of the captain, questioning, querulous,
borne back the few intervening feet through the flying atmosphere. He
did not know and it angered him to have such a question asked.

How could he tell?

He was panting with exertion and smothered with drift and spray.
Suddenly he hove the wheel to starboard. The little vessel leaped
forward, straightened out before the gale, then rounded with her head
to the eastward. It was done anyhow. If they were clear, all right. If
they had missed, they would strike within five minutes.

“Get–anchors–all cable,” came the voice of the captain.

Macreary could see nothing forward, but he knew the men were doing what
they could to obey. Minutes passed, the vessel rose and fell, but she
had not struck yet. He held the wheel, and closed his eyes. The sea
seemed smoother. Ahead it was evidently smoother still. The great lift
of the outside sea was growing less and less. Five minutes more and
the _Seabird_ was in another foam-covered plain of water which had no
rolling sea.

“Go,” came a cry. It was echoed by a faint shriek somewhere. A shaking
of the vessel followed as the chain ran out. Suddenly she brought up
and swung right into the eye of the storm, the rush of wind striking
Macreary in the face and forcing his sou’wester back upon his head.
There was a quick but light rise and fall as the _Seabird_ headed the
sea, and Macreary lashed the wheel fast in the beckets.

A form brushed against him and the captain yelled in his face: “She’s
holdin’–both anchors with forty fathoms–can’t get loose unless it
blows the water off the earth,” and then he pushed the hatch-slide and
went below.

In a few minutes all hands were in the little cabin and a light was
struck. It showed four men with streaming oilskins and soaking faces,
whose expressions still bore marks of extreme anxiety. Three of them
looked at each other and then cast glances at Macreary.

“That was a pretty good job, pilot,” said Captain James. “We had a
close call there once–suppose you got mixed with the steering gear,
hey?”

Macreary said nothing. He was like a man who had suddenly awakened from
a horrible nightmare.

“Well, you won’t lose nothin’ by this trip,” went on the captain; “them
fellows will be blown off fifty miles before morning–and there ain’t a
soul aboard the bark–she’s ourn, and that’s a fact.”

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