The Wrecker’s Reward

“Ef I wassent er lady, I’d knock yo’ blamed haid off, yo’ black
rascal!” cried Julia. The big mate smiled at her softly, and made
another pass to seize her; but she struggled free, for he would not
hold her fast enough. “Don’t yo’ come ’round heah no mo’; I don’t want
no dealin’s wif no sailor man.”

“What’ the good o’ gettin’ mad over a little squeeze, Sugar-plum?”
grinned the black giant. “I ain’t done yo’ no harm–an’ wouldn’t fo’
nothing Jule. Yo’ knows I ain’t got no gal but yo’self.”

“Youse a rascal, dat yo’ is, ‘n’ ef I wassent a lady, I’d knock yo’
cocoanut off’n yo’ ugly haid!” said the indignant Julia, whose dignity
had been ruffled by the sailor’s amorous but powerful wooing. “I knows
yo’, comin’ around dis house an’ tryin’ to fool a pore gal like me.”

“No, Jule, I means everythin’ I says, an’ a lot mo’ besides. I wants
yo’ to marry me, sho’ ’nuff,” said the big sailor earnestly.

Julia rapidly was soothing herself. There was something so strong and
pleading in the man’s voice that she almost forgot the liberties he had
taken, and looked at him keenly. “Aw, gwine away, yo’ black man; whar
yo’ got money to marry a gal like me?” She was now smiling at him; but
edging away into the doorway of the little cabin which stood by the
coral roadway in Key West. She really did not dislike the sailor; for
Bahama Bill had a reputation for being a good money-getter and a most
excellent spender. As mate of the wrecking sloop _Sea-Horse_, he often
came in with a few English pounds sterling, or a pocketful of good
American dollars, earned in his business along the Great Bahama Bank.
Three days, however, always was the limit of his prosperity.

Now he had been ashore for a week, and consequently was the possessor
of nothing more than a clasp-knife, a dirty pair of trousers and
jumper, and an old clay pipe. Shoes he had left at some friend’s house
for a trivial debt for a handful of cigars, and head-gear he did not
need. He was more or less contented, and was entirely willing to enter
into the married state, feeling with the utmost confidence that money
was a plentiful article and easy for a man of parts to procure. His
wild excesses seemed vain in the sober light of the tropic sunshine,
and it manifestly was the time for him to settle down to a state of
quiet bliss with Julia.

“I kin get plenty o’ money, Jule,” said he softly.

“When yo’ shows me, den yo’ cain talk wif me, an’ not befo’,” said
Julia. “I ain’t doin’ no washin’ ‘n’ ironin’ for no one. I’se near
eighteen now, an’ I ain’t married no one yet.”

“But, Jule, I kin get money easy enough. Come here now an’ let me tell
yo’ how I kin.”

“No, sah, no monkeyin’,” said Julia, edging farther into the
doorway. “Yo’ get de money fust, ‘n’–‘n’–den–well, yo’
knows–’bout–’bout–dat.”

Then she softly but firmly shut the door. He caught a glimpse of her
through the kitchen window, and she smiled and waved her hand so that
he almost was tempted to force an entrance; but he remembered that
the Cuban who owned the house would likely hear him and perhaps fill
him with bird-shot. He gave one longing look, and strode toward the
harbour. The wrecking sloop was to sail that day, sponging to the
northward along the Keys.

The first few days were hard on him. He was solemn and lonesome in
spite of himself, and his quiet behaviour was noticed by his shipmates.
They made the remarks usual among rough men of the forecastle, but Bill
took no notice.

“Here’s a chance for a feller to make good,” cried a Conch to a stout
German sailor called Heldron: “Reward fer old man Sanches’ boy who run
off to sea in one o’ them fruit-ships,” and he read from an old paper
as he lay in his bunk during the watch below.

“I know dot poy: he pad poy; but him fader big sight worse,” said the
German. “He make de worst seegar in Key West.”

“Well, if I was a mate o’ a ship I might make good on that, hey?” said
Sam.

“Blamed sight easier’n spongin’, to catch a little boy,” said another;
“but I hear the old man is going to the eastward–heard of something
down Fortune Island way.”

And the conversation turned to business, while the mate smoked on in
silence. That night they were speeding across the Florida Channel in
spite of the threatening weather and heavy sea. By morning they were
many miles off shore, and gradually had been forced to slow down.
The wind, while now slacking up and becoming heavy with moisture and
warmth, had been strong enough during the night to make the _Sea-Horse_
shorten down to keep from forcing too heavily into the high, rolling
sea.

It was dirty weather in the Gulf Stream. The flying scud streamed
away to the northwest in little whirling bits of vapour. They tore
along with the speed of an express train in a direction which seemed
at a sharp angle to the heavy, steel-blue bank which swept in a
mighty and majestic semicircle across the southern sky. High overhead
the sky had a distant appearance, something peculiar and weird, for
the storm-centre was advancing northward and gathering all straying
moisture in its grasp. It made dark streaks in the heavens at a
distance above the sea, and rays of the morning sun shone upon them
with a brassy glare, as though the whole universe was incased in a
colossal dome which darkened near the horizon. It seemed to absorb
the failing light less and less as the line of vision rose toward the
zenith.

With a line of reef-points tied in from the second hoop on the
mainsail to the cringle on the leach, which raised only a couple of
fathoms in the air, the _Sea-Horse_ lay upon the starboard tack. A bit
of staysail forward hauled to the mast held her steady as she breasted
the sea, staggering to leeward with the heave that, increasing, told of
a mighty power behind it. The combing crests rolled white with a dull,
rattling snore, and the beautiful blue colour of the warm stream was
paling into a dark lead.

The sloop would throw her forefoot high in the air as the rolling
crests would strike and sweep from under the now almost logy hulk. The
brown of the copper-painted under-body showed in strong contrast to
the dirty white above. Then she would drop with a sidewise, twisting
motion, a little bow-foremost into the trough, and back her snub nose
away from the onrushing hill before it, which sometimes would burst and
smother her out of sight to the mast in a storm of flying water. Then
she would drop again, sidewise and forward down the incline, the rush
of foam on the decks sweeping through the side ports in the bulwarks,
spurting and pouring over everything, and finally overboard, until the
action was repeated.

Two men in their yellow oilskins were upon the quarter-deck; one lying
prone abaft the rise of the cabin, gazed sullenly at the menacing sky.
The other sat and held on the wheel, which was fast in a becket, with
relieving tackles on the gear heaving it hard down, and he tried to
get puffs of smoke from a pipe. The wind was getting too strong for
smoking, and he went into the companionway and called the mate to
relieve him. Bahama Bill came up, and the Captain went below.

The big mate sat there watching the weather, and his face bore a
good-humoured expression. The conditions suited his frame of mind. Away
from the temptations of the beach, he was a different man from the
fracas-loving ruffian when full of cheap grog. Captain Bull Sanders
turned in for a short rest, knowing that the vessel was in good hands.

Below in the bunks of the cuddy five men lay in all possible positions
to keep from being flung out. One read, or tried to read, the paper
which told of the running away to sea of the rich cigar-maker’s son
and of the reward offered for his safe delivery into the bosom of his
family. Others lay and talked. Another slept, grasping even in his
slumbers at the bunk-boards, and mechanically bracing his knee to
hold himself during the wild plunges. The creaking and racking of the
straining sloop blended with the droning roar overhead, punctuated
now and then by a smashing crash as a sea would fall on deck; but the
resting men paid little attention to either the noise or motion, until
the Captain had finished his pipe.

He suddenly threw down the magazine he had been trying to read for some
minutes, and glanced at the barometer on the bulkhead. “Goin’ down all
the time. I reckon we’ll catch it,” he said.

“Hurricane season began nigh a month ago,” said a man significantly.

“It don’t got here alretty yet, maybe,” said Heldron.

“Must be,” said a Swede.

There was a general movement. All hands reached for oilskins and
without further orders followed the Captain on deck.

“How’s the wind now, Bill?” bawled the Captain.

“Been easterly; but goin’ toe th’ s’uthard fast,” said the mate. “Looks
a bit dirty.”

“Whew! Beginning to blow a bit, hey?” said the Captain, as a fierce
squall struck them and roared past, sending a blinding cloud of spray
and drift over them. The droning cry of the wind in the rigging
increased, and the straining cloth stretched until the blast passing
over it made a dull, booming, rushing sound of such volume that
conversation was deadened in the noise.

It now was blowing with force. The sea was white under the steel-blue
bank, which had risen until a twilight darkness was upon the ocean. The
sky above was turning a dull gray, and the scud was darker against it,
whirling along in torn masses before the squalls, which were becoming
more frequent and violent. The wind was shifting southerly, and the
shifts in the squalls told plainly of the danger of the approaching
spot of low pressure, about which the squalls drew in with the spiral
movement common to tropical hurricanes.

Bull Sanders looked anxiously at the lubber’s mark. The sea was getting
worse, and the sudden hot blasts of wind were more vicious. He was too
old a sailor to be caught with loose gear. Everything already had been
done to snug the sloop down; but there was a limit to the strength of
spars and lines. The mainsail might hold; but some of those hurricane
squalls would blow away anything made of canvas, and he decided to take
no chances. He got out his sea-anchor, or drag, and let it go from
the weather quarter, passing the line forward with difficulty to the
windlass. Then, just after a squall, all hands handed in the bit of
canvas, rolled it up, and made it fast. The _Sea-Horse_ now was going
astern fast, pulling the drag with her which kept her head to the sea.
Nothing more could be done for the time, and Sanders crouched in the
wake of the cabin, watching ahead for the shift which would come.

“What’s that?” he bawled into the mate’s ear, and pointed to the
eastward.

Just as the sloop rose upon a high crest, a dark speck showed for a
moment on the eastern horizon. It was not far away; for it was too
thick to see any great distance.

“Steamer,” bawled the mate, “hove-to and going to the north’ard like
blazes!”

“We’re right in th’ stream–if the wind holds southeast, he’ll be all
right.”

“But it won’t. It’s shifting–be southwest in an hour–he’ll be close
to the bank.”

“Gun Key?”

“We ain’t more’n twenty miles to the south’ard o’ Gun Key–’bout
sou’west-b’-south.”

The squalls became fiercer and more frequent. They were like blasts
from an explosion, the wind roaring past with incredible power. Between
them it was blowing at the rate of sixty miles an hour; but when they
struck it was nearly double that velocity. The wrecking sloop sagged
away to leeward, and the dangerous sea swept upon her during those
rushes in a way that shook every bolt and fastening in the frame.
She was beginning to make water a little, and the bursting sea which
struck now and again sought out every crack and seam in the companion
doors and hatchway. The men on deck were submerged repeatedly. For
an hour and more they watched her making bad weather of it, and then
came a darker colour in the gray above. There was a sudden squall of
tremendous power. The vessel was hove almost on her beam ends as it
took her forward of the beam, and she swung up to the drag barely in
time to take the sea bow on. The lubber’s mark swung slowly from left
to right until it reached southwest.

“It’s goin’ fast,” bawled the mate to Sanders alongside him.

“See that feller now?” asked the Captain.

The mate pointed to the eastward.

The dark smudge of the steamer’s hull showed through the flying drift.
While they looked a flash of white told of a heavy sea boarding her.
She disappeared in the foam.

“Must have trouble with her engines,” said Sanders. “She’s goin’ to
lor’ard as fast as we be.”

Bahama Bill was staring astern into the gray blank where all things
seemed to melt into chaos. Suddenly he called out, and all hands swung
about and stared in the same direction.

“Gun Key light!” screamed Heldron, his eyes staring from their
salt-burned lids.

“Will we go clear?” asked Sam, his voice steady, but his intense look
telling of the tale of life or death he wanted to hear. They stared
into the drift astern, and the squalls broke over them unheeded. The
sea was quick and heavy, and to strike meant certain loss of the
vessel. There was one chance in a thousand for any one to get ashore,
should she fetch up on the coral bank. Yet there she was going to
leeward fast in spite of the drag, and the tower of Gun Key light was
rising under the lee. To the northward was the Beminis. She was getting
jammed, and the chances were growing against her as the minutes flew by.

The steamer was farther to leeward. She had sighted the edge of the
bank, and was trying to drive off into the Gulf Stream with the force
of her crippled engines. A cross-head bolt had started, and under the
terrific strain the starboard engine had broken down. She could not
keep head to the sea with the port wheel, and had placed a tarpaulin
in the mizzen-rigging to help hold; but it had forced her to leeward
also, and she now was close to the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. The
_Sea-Horse_ still had between twelve and fifteen miles between her and
the reef; but the ship had hardly ten, and was dropping back too fast
for any hope to clear unless the wind eased up suddenly.

Squall after squall followed the shift. It blew harder, if anything,
and the Captain of the steamer, seeing that he must go on the bank,
made ready to pile his ship up as high as possible in the hope of
saving some of the passengers and crew. To go upon the submerged part
of the reef meant death to all hands. He must run upon the coral above
the surf, and get as high up as he could. Then if the outer edge was
steep, he might get his bow near enough to dry land to get the people
ashore.

The crew of the _Sea-Horse_ watched him as he went slowly in. In an
hour after the westerly shift he was so close that the white coral
showed through the blinding clouds of spray thrown up by the sea on the
reef. Then, by hard work, he managed to get some head sail on the ship
and start in for Gun Key.

She ran the half-mile between her and the beach at a tremendous pace.
Lifting upon a sea, she rushed shoreward and struck, swung, lifted
again, and then was hove solidly broadside into the surf. The men on
the wrecker saw her strike. When she stopped a great burst of white
told of a smashing sea going over. The slanting spars and funnel told
how high she had hit, and the huge, bursting clouds of white water
smothering her told of the rending power that she was exposed to
in that surf. The hundred yards between the bow and the sand was a
churning, boiling stretch of whiteness.

“That’s the end of her,” said the mate. “Looks like we’re in fer the
same thing.”

In silence the rest watched the wreck. They were going in themselves;
but the fate of the ship held their attention in spite of the death
that they knew lay in the white line to leeward. It had been blowing
now for four hours with hurricane force, and as they went in within
a mile of the surf the shifting squalls swung more and more to the
westward. Then it began to ease suddenly. Between gusts there was
not more than a stiff gale. It was growing brighter, and they knew
that they had missed the storm-centre, which must have passed to the
eastward.

“Get the mainsail on her–we’ll poke her to the s’uth’ard!” bawled
Sanders.

Led by the mate, the men lay forward, and working for life raised the
balance-reefed mainsail. Bahama Bill lay flat on his stomach, knife in
hand, while they cleared the forestaysail and ran it up. Then he cut
clear the drag. A wave of the hand, and Sanders filled the vessel off
on the starboard tack, and as it went the dull booming thunder of the
surf came up against the gale.

“If the wind keeps goin’ we’ll poke her off yet,” said Sanders as the
mate came aft.

“Ay, we’ll poke her out to sea; but I could swim that surf good an’
easy,” said the mate quietly.

The Captain grinned, and looked at his giant form, its huge proportions
made all the larger by the loose-fitting oilskins.

“Mebbe you’ll git a chance yet,” he said. “If it had blown half an hour
longer, you cud ha’ tried.”

They worked off that afternoon, getting sail up as the wind slacked. At
night they kept the light in sight, and the next morning were standing
back for Gun Key under a single-reefed mainsail with a fine strong
northerly wind and clear sky. The steamship lay over on her side in the
surf, which broke over her in sheets of foam and spray. The sea had
gone down; but there still was enough to tear up the craft. The masts
and funnel and nearly all the superstructure had gone. Even the iron
sides were smashed, twisted and bent, the plates starting and ripping
clear of the rivets under the smashing blows of the sea. No sign of
life showed aboard; but as she was high up on the bank there was no
doubt that men could live. The _Sea-Horse_ ran close enough to give the
crew a chance to read the name _Orion_ on the stern.

“One o’ them new ships,” said Bill. “She was in Key West last time we
ran sponges.”

They ran as close to the surf as they dared, and let go both anchors.
Paying out cable, the sloop soon came within fifty fathoms, and then
stopped; for the sea rose just under the stern, and burst a few fathoms
farther in.

“Gimme a line,” said the mate.

Sam and Heldron brought forth a coil of whale line, and the black man
stripped for the plunge. He went over the side without a splash, and
they paid out fathom after fathom until his black head showed close to
the bow of the ship, which had settled inshore and lower. Then they saw
him disappear around it, and they waited. Five, ten, minutes passed,
and then a form showed upon the high stern. It was the mate, and he
waved to haul line.

Heldron went over the taut line next, followed by a Swede and Sam. Then
the line was slacked off, and the big mate, taking a new one, plunged
to leeward and made his way ashore. Half-fish, the diver went through
the surf without accident and joined the light-keeper and his assistant
on the beach, where they were waiting to do what they could to save
those on the wreck. A line they had sent in on a buoy had parted, and
the man upon it had been drowned.

The mate went back aboard, and managed to get the ten passengers
and rest of the crew ashore without accident. All had gone except
an uncouth-looking lad, the ship’s galley-boy, in whom no one
took interest enough to care whether he got ashore or not. Dirty,
dishevelled and frightened beyond words, the lad crawled out of his
hiding-place and begged the big mate to take him in.

As he had been calling and looking through the ship for disabled men,
the Captain having told him his crew, the mate seized the lad without
further words and plunged over the side. The boy was the last person
unaccounted for.

“Seems to me I seen yo’ befo’, sonny,” said the mate as he drew him
clear of the surf. “Don’t yo’ live in Key West?”

“Oh, yes, I know you,” said the lad, grinning.

The mate held him out at arm’s length. “Ain’t yo’ Jimmy Sanches?”

The grin died away from the lad’s face. “You won’t take me back, will
you, Bill?” he said.

“I reckon I’ll have toe, Jimmy.”

The next day the _Sea-Horse_ sailed for Key West with the first claim
for salvage, and a small boy who tried to run away at the last minute,
causing the mate a chase to the lighthouse before he recaptured him.

“You’ve hit it fair this trip,” said Sanders. “I reckon as ye ain’t
thinkin’ about whackin’ up on thet reward, hey Bill?”

But the mate said nothing, his rheumy eyes looking far away toward the
southern horizon, where he expected to see the spars of the shipping in
Key West rise above the sea. He was thinking, and it caused his heavy
and seamed jaws to set and line up into a deep scowl. Julia worked for
the rich Sanches, and their reception of a ragged and half-sober seaman
had not been hospitable. Yet here was his chance.

The next day the wrecking sloop rode at anchor close to the beach,
and Sanders made ready to get his load of perishable goods ashore and
notify the authorities of the disaster up the bank.

“Don’t take me back!” whispered Jimmy as Bill swung him into the small
boat, and the big mate was silent as the men rowed ashore.

On the way up the street the mate walked slowly, holding the boy by the
hand.

“You know what a feller my stepfather is, Bill. Don’t take me back!”
pleaded Jimmy.

A steamer was clearing at the coal dock, and the mate stopped to look
at it. Then he suddenly looked down at the boy. “Kin yo’ make it,
sonny?” he asked, and he let go of the boy’s hand. Like a flash the
lad ran to the string-piece, balanced a moment, and then sprang to
the rail of the ship astern without those on board noticing him. It
was gathering headway, and in a few moments was steaming out to sea,
leaving the big mate staring after her, and the few men who had cast
off her lines clearing up the rubbish in the wake of her gangway.

“I come back toe tell yo’, Jule, dat I ain’t in the money racket,” said
Bill, half an hour later. “I ain’t no perliceman–I’m a sailor.”

“Whatcher mean, Bill?” asked the damsel, keeping inside the door.

“Nothin’–only if yo’ is sho’ nuff goin’ toe marry me, gal, yo’ll have
toe take yo’ chances–same as me.”

“Chances? Whatcher mean by chances, man?”

“What I says,” said Bill, solemnly.

She saw that he was not in liquor. He sat silent and solemn for a long
time, until finally she opened the door a little wider.

“I reckon I ain’t scared o’ takin’–usual risks–Bill.”

“I would like to borrow five dollars from ye, Bill,” said Sanders when
the mate got back aboard.

The giant black scowled at him.

“Didn’t ye git the money yet?”

“I ain’t naterally quarrelsome,” said Bill; “but if I hears any mo’
erbout dat money, dere’s likely toe be some daid men ‘roun’.”

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