Read CHAPTER I - A RESCUE BY MOONLIGHT of The Boy With the U. S. Life-Savers , free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on ReadCentral.com.

“Help! Help!”

The cry rang out despairingly over the almost-deserted beach at Golden Gate Park.

Jumping up so suddenly that the checker-board went in one direction, the table in another, while the checkers rolled to every corner of the little volunteer life-saving station house, Eric Swift made a leap for the door. Quick as he was to reach the boat, he was none too soon, for the coxswain and two other men were tumbling over the gunwale at the same time.

Before the echoes of the cry had ceased, the boat was through the surf and was heading out to sea like an arrow shot from a Sioux war-bow.

Although this was the second summer that Eric had been with the Volunteers, it had never chanced to him before to be called out on a rescue at night. The sensation was eerie in the extreme. The night was still, with a tang of approaching autumn in the air to set the nerves a-tingle. Straight in the golden path of moonlight the boat sped. The snap that comes from exerting every muscle to the full quickened the boy’s eagerness and the tense excitement made everything seem unreal.

The coxswain, with an intuition which was his peculiar gift, steered an undeviating course. Some of the life-savers used to joke with him and declare that he could smell a drowning man a mile away, for his instinct was almost always right.

For once, Eric thought, the coxswain must have been at fault, for nothing was visible, when, after a burst of speed which seemed to last minutes though in reality it was but seconds the coxswain held up his hand. The men stopped rowing.

The boy had slipped off his shoes while still at his oar, working off first one shoe and then the other with his foot. It was so late in the evening that not a single man in the crew was in the regulation bathing-suit, all were more or less dressed. Eric’s chum, a chap nicknamed the “Eel” because of his curious way of swimming, with one motion slipped off all his clothing and passed from his thwart to the bow of the boat.

A ripple showed on the surface of the water. Eric could not have told it from the roughness of a breaking wave, but before ever the outlines of a rising head were seen, the Eel sprang into the sea. Two of those long, sinuous strokes of his brought him almost within reach of the drowning man. Blindly the half-strangled sufferer threw up his arms, the action sending him under water again, a gurgled “Help!” being heard by those in the boat as he went down.

The Eel dived.

Eric, who had followed his chum headforemost into the water hardly half a second later, swam around waiting for the other to come up. In three quarters of a minute the Eel rose to the surface with his living burden. Suddenly, with a twist, almost entirely unconscious, the drowning man grappled his rescuer. Eric knew that his chum was an adept at all the various ways of “breaking away” from these grips, a necessary part of the training of every life-saver, but he swam close up in case he might be able to help.

“Got him all right?” he asked.

“He’s got me!” grunted the Eel, disgustedly.

“P’raps I’d better give you a hand to break,” suggested the boy, reaching over with the intention of helping his friend, for the struggling swimmer had secured a tight grip around the Eel’s neck. The life-saver, however, covering the nose and mouth of the half-drowned man with one hand, pulled him close with the other and punched him vigorously in the wind with his knee.

“Now he’ll be good,” said the Eel, grinning as well as he could with a mouth full of water. He spat out the brine, shook the water out of his eyes, and putting his hands on either side of the drowning man’s head, started for the shore. Using a powerful “scissors” stroke, the Eel made quick time, though he seemed to be taking it in leisurely fashion. Eric, although a good swimmer, had all he could do to keep up.

“How do you think he is?” the lad asked.

“Oh, he’ll come around all right,” the Eel replied, “I don’t believe he’s swallowed such an awful lot of water. I guess he’s been able to swim a bit.”

The rescued man was a good weight and not fat, so that he floated deep. The sea was choppy, too, with a nasty little surf on the beach. But the Eel brought the sufferer in with the utmost ease.

As soon as they reached shore, Eric grabbed the drowning man’s feet while the Eel took him by the shoulders and lifted him on a stretcher which two other members of the Volunteer Corps had brought. As soon as the rescued man was placed on this, the bearers started at a quick pace for the life-saving station, and artificial respiration was begun.

In spite of the fact that the boy had seen dozens of half-drowned persons brought back to consciousness, the process never lost to him its half-terrible fascination. He always felt the lurking danger and he had been well-trained never to forget how much hung in the balance. Always it was a human life, flickering like a candle-flame in a gusty wind. Always the outcome was unknown.

Once Eric had worked for a solid hour over a man who had been brought in from the beach before he had been rewarded by any sign of life. The U. S. Volunteer Corps had drilled into him very thoroughly the knowledge that tireless patience and grim persistence will almost work miracles. Accordingly, when it came his turn, he joined readily in the work of restoration. The swim had tired him a little, and he was glad to quit when another member of the station took his place over the half-drowned man’s body.

“Why do we use the Schaefer method, Doctor?” Eric asked.

“It’s the best system for our work,” was the reply, “because it can be done by one person. Quite often, a fellow may make a rescue and bring some one to shore, so that he will have to work alone. You’re not going to be right at a station always.”

“That’s true,” the boy said meditatively.

“Watch, now,” continued the doctor, pointing to the life-saver, who was at work and who was kneeling astride the prone figure of the unconscious man. “You see Johnson’s hands are pressing right between the short ribs, aren’t they?”

“Yes, that’s the base of the lungs, isn’t it?” Eric queried.

“It is,” the doctor answered. “Now when a man brings down the weight of the upper part of his body on his hands the way Johnson is doing there it means that about one hundred pounds of pressure is applied to those lungs, doesn’t it?”

“Sure; fifty pounds on each lung,” agreed the boy.

“You can see how that forces out nearly every bit of air in the lungs. Then, as soon as he leans backwards again, and takes off the pressure, the air rushes in to fill the lungs. That makes artificial breathing, doesn’t it?”

“Of course.”

“That’s the whole secret of restoration; that, and keeping everlastingly at it.”

“But if the Schaefer method is the best way,” protested Eric, “I don’t see why everybody doesn’t use it.”

“Such as ”

“Well, the Life-Saving end of the Coast Guard doesn’t!”

“I don’t say the Schaefer is the only good method,” answered the doctor; “nothing of the kind. It’s the one that suits us best.” He stepped over to the prostrate man, never relaxing his vigilant watch for the first sign of life. Then, returning to Eric, he continued, “The Coast Guard uses the Sylvester method, doesn’t it?”

“One of the forms of it, Father told me,” the boy answered. “He showed me how. It’s quite different from what we do here.”

“How did he show you?” asked the doctor interestedly; “there are so many different ways.”

“Father told me to stand or kneel at the head of the chap who had been rescued, then, grabbing hold of the arms above the elbows, to draw them up over the head, keep them there a couple of seconds, then force them down and press them against the sides of the chest. I suppose the principle is about the same.”

“Exactly the same,” the doctor said, “but of course every one has his preference. I like the Schaefer method best, myself, because in it the tongue hangs out and the water runs from the mouth naturally, while in the Sylvester method, the tongue has to be tied.”

“But which is the better?” persisted Eric.

“There really doesn’t seem to be much difference in the result,” was the reply, “it’s the man behind the gun, not the system. The Coast Guard so far holds the record for the most wonderful cases of recovery and theirs is the older method. The important thing is to know exactly what you’re doing, and to do it with everlasting perseverance. Never give up! I’ve seen some wonderful examples of fellows just snatched back to life long after we thought they had gone. There was one, I remember ”

“Doctor!” called Johnson, “I think he’s coming to!”

The rescued man gave a gasp and his eyelids fluttered. The doctor was beside him in an instant, but instead of seeming satisfied by his examination he shook his head doubtfully as he rose from the side of his patient.

“Going all right?” queried Eric.

“No,” was the answer, “he’s not. I think he’s got smokers’ heart. You’d better watch him a bit closely, boys! One can’t ever tell in these cases.”

“You mean he’s not out of the woods yet, Doctor?” the lad asked.

“Not by a long shot,” was the reply. “You can’t play any monkey-shines with the heart. Judging by the shape that fellow’s heart is in, I should be inclined to say he’s been smoking for nearly ten years, smoking pretty heavily, too. And he can’t be a day over twenty-three!”

“Do you suppose that had anything to do with his drowning?”

“Of course it had,” the doctor answered. “Swimming is a real athletic exercise and you’ve got to keep in shape to swim well. What’s more, you’ve got to have a decent heart to start with. But if a youngster piles into cigarettes, it’s a safe bet that he’s going to cripple himself for athletics in manhood.”

“But you smoke, Doctor!”

“Sure I do,” the other rejoined. “And I swim, pretty nearly as well as any of you young fellows. But I didn’t start any cigarette business when I was a kid, the way lots of boys do now. It wasn’t until I was in college that I smoked my first pipe.”

“Then you think it’s all right for a chap to smoke after he’s grown up?”

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say that,” the doctor said, “but there’s no doubt that the cases which have turned out worst are those in which the habit began early. Nature’s a wise old scout, Eric, and you’re apt to find that a man who’s likely to be hurt by smoking won’t develop a craving for it unless he started too young, or unless he forced himself to excess.”

The boy wanted to question the doctor further, for he was thoroughly interested in finding out that smoking prevents an athletic manhood, when the speaker was interrupted by a cry from the half-conscious man.

“Jake!” he called.

The doctor was beside him in a second.

“What is it, son?” he said, bending his head down so that his grizzled mustache almost brushed the man’s face.

“Jake! Where’s Jake?”

A sudden silence swept over the station. Only the Eel moved. With that queer sliding step of his that was almost noiseless, he went to the door of the little house that faced the sea.

“Jake!” again the cry came. “Where’s Jake?”

The man was relapsing into unconsciousness when the doctor quickly took a powerful restorative from his medicine-bag, which lay beside the cot, and held it to the man’s nose. The fumes roused him.

“Where did you leave him?” queried the doctor.

“I I couldn’t get him,” gasped the rescued man, breathing heavily.

There was a general rustle and every man half-turned to the door. In the silence a man’s boot, being kicked off, clattered noisily on the floor.

“How do you mean you couldn’t get him?” the doctor persisted. “Was he swimming with you?”

“He went down sudden ” came the answer, weakly, “and when I tried ... to help ... he pulled at my legs.”

The words were hardly out of his lips before the station-house was empty save for the doctor and the rescued swimmer. As the door slid back behind them, Eric heard the man cry in a quavering voice,

“I’ve drowned him! I’ve drowned him! I had to kick him free to save myself!”

Outside, not a word was said. The men knew their work and their places. The coxswains were ready and the three white boats were sliding down the beach, the big boat down the runway, as the men heard that cry again,

“I’ve drowned him! I’ve drowned him. I had to kick him free to save myself!”

The words rang hauntingly in Eric’s ears as his boat hit the first incoming billow. The former rescue in the moonlight had held a quick thrill, but it had been nothing like this tense eager race in the darkness. Nearly a quarter of an hour had passed in the station-house before the rescued man had recovered consciousness and the rescue had taken at least five minutes. Almost twenty-five minutes had elapsed, then, since the first cry of help had been heard.

The boats leapt forward like swift dogs released from leash. The oars were made to resist extreme strain, but they bent under the terrific strokes of the life-savers. Over six thousand miles of sea the Pacific rolled in with slow surges, and out in the darkness, somewhere, was a drowning man, probably beyond help, but with just the faintest shred of possibility for life if he could be found immediately.

With that uncanny intuition which made him so marvelous in the work, the coxswain of Eric’s boat steered a course fifty feet away from that of the larger boat.

Not a word was spoken until, above the swish of the water and the rattle of the rowlocks, the Eel said quietly,

“We picked him up a little to wind’ard of here!” Three men, among them Eric, slipped into the water. Almost at the same moment, five or six men plunged in from the other boats. The lieutenant stopped Eric’s chum.

“You’d better stay aboard, Eel,” he said; “you’ve already had quite a swim.”

The Eel shrugged his shoulders disapprovingly, but, after all, orders were orders, and the captain of the Golden Gate station was a disciplinarian to his finger-tips.

In the broken gleams of the moonlight flickering on the tumbled water, the forms of the dozen members of the corps could be seen. Ever and again one would disappear from sight for a deep dive to try to find the body.

This was a part of the work in which Eric was particularly good. He had a strong leg-stroke and was compactly built, although large-boned for his age. Tired though he was from swimming ashore with the Eel on the first rescue, he went down as often as any of his comrades. Looking back at the boat, he saw the Eel wave his hand in a direction a little south of where he had dived before.

Following out the suggestion, Eric took a long breath and went down. It was a deep dive, and he thought he saw a gleam of white below him. The boy tried to swim down a foot or two farther, but his breath failed him, and he shot up, gasping, to the surface. Not wanting to give a false alarm, yet knowing well that every second counted, the boy merely stayed long enough to get his breath, then, putting every ounce of power he possessed into a supreme effort, he went down again. This time he got a foot nearer, but not near enough to be quite sure. Again he darted up to the surface.

“Here, fellows!” he shouted.

The boat shot up beside him.

“Found him, Eric?”

“I think so, sir,” the boy answered, “but he was too far down for me.”

The Eel had stripped. He stood up and looked pleadingly at the lieutenant.

“Sure you’re not tired?”

The Eel smiled.

“Overboard with you, then!”

He dived.

Dozens of times though Eric had seen the Eel dive, and often as he had tried to imitate him, the boy never ceased to envy his comrade his extraordinary power of going into the water without the slightest splash. Powerful dive though it was, scarcely a drop of water seemed to be displaced as the Eel went down.

During the few seconds that passed while these sentences were being interchanged, three or four others of the life-savers had rallied to Eric’s call and were headed for the boat. One man, especially, a big, burly fellow who looked as though he would be too heavy to swim, but who possessed an astounding amount of endurance and who could hold his breath longer than any one else in the station, followed the Eel to the bottom. Eric was game, and although he was beginning to feel thoroughly done up, he joined the quest in the depths of the sea.

Moonlight gives no reflections beneath the water, and the sea was dark. The Eel was already out of sight below him, but as the boy made his way down, the powerful figure of the heavy swimmer came past him like a shadow.

A few seconds later, the Eel shot up by him, bringing an unconscious man in his grasp. The other swimmer followed. By the time Eric reached the boat he was exhausted and had to be helped in. The rescued man had been lifted into the large boat, and before the boy was even aboard, the other craft was half-way to the shore, racing like mad. The other boats followed.

As soon as the surf-boat touched the beach, the big man jumped out, two other members of the corps threw the unconscious figure across his shoulders for the “fireman’s carry,” and while the keel of the boat was still grinding on the beach, the rescued man was well on the way toward the house.

The doctor was waiting. The victim of the drowning accident, apparently dead, was put into hot blankets. His arms and legs were stiff. The lips were quite blue and the whole of the face discolored. At the sight of him, and the little slimy ooze from his lips, the doctor looked grave. The big life-saver who had carried the sufferer in was already at work in an attempt at resuscitation.

A moment or two later, the first man who had been rescued and who was feeling a little stronger, turned over on the stretcher. He saw the swollen and discolored face of his friend and sent up a piercing cry,

“He’s dead!”

Then, after a pause and a silence broken only by the rhythmic beat of the regular motions of the process of causing artificial respiration, came the cry again,

“I’ve drowned him! I’ve drowned him! I had to kick him free to save myself!”

Although the house was kept empty save for the four men, the doctor beckoned to one of the officers standing outside so that there should be as much air as possible in the station to come in and try to quiet the frenzied man.

“Bromides, Doctor?” queried the lieutenant, who had come in.

“Yes. Give him just one of the triple. No, that won’t hurt him,” he continued in answer to a look; “it’s excessive stimulation that a man with smokers’ heart can’t stand.”

The life-saver gave the required dose and succeeded in soothing the poor fellow, who was still terribly weak. The men sat on the steps outside, talking in low tones. Every one of them was keenly conscious of the strain. For twenty minutes there was no sound from within the station except the hard breathing of the man who was putting in all his strength to give the recumbent figure the motions of respiration.

“Ryan!” the doctor called suddenly.

A strapping young fellow jumped up like a shot and darted into the station to take the place of the exhausted worker. Wiping his forehead and breathing hard, the latter came out to his companions.

“Do you think there’s any change, Jim?” one of them asked.

“Not so far as I can see,” the other answered, shaking his head.

“How long do you suppose he was under?” queried another.

Close comparison of watches gave the actual time as between nineteen and twenty-one minutes.

“Has any one ever been saved who has been under water as long as that?” asked Eric.

“Eighteen minutes is the longest I’ve ever seen,” answered Johnson, the veteran of the corps, “but, of course, there’s the Mooney case.”

The boy listened a moment, but no sound came from the station. It was less nerve-racking to talk than to listen, so he went on,

“What was the Mooney case?”

“That was a Coast Guard job, in the days when the United States Life-Saving Service was a separate bureau. It was quite a queer case in a good many ways.”

“How long was Mooney under water? Half an hour, wasn’t it?” questioned another of the men.

“Thirty-one minutes, according to general reports,” Johnson replied, “but to make sure that they weren’t stretching it, the official report made it ‘twenty minutes or over.’ One of my pals worked on the man.”

“How was it?” queried Eric. “In a storm?”

“Beautiful sunny Fourth of July,” was the reply. “And, what’s more, it was in shallow water, near shore, and the man could swim!”

“But how in the world ”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling,” Johnson continued, resenting the interruption. “It was during a boat race on Point Judith Pond in Rhode Island. My pal, who was a surfman, had been assigned to duty there. Naturally, he was watching the races. On the other side of the pond a small flat-bottomed skiff, carrying one sail, capsized. There were three men in her. Streeter, that’s the fellow I know, saw the boat capsize, but he knew that the water was shallow and noted that it was near shore. Just the same, he kept an eye on the boat. As soon as he saw two men clinging to the sides of the skiff, he started for the scene of the accident. He was about a third of a mile away.

“What had happened was this. When the boat capsized, the swinging boom struck Mooney on the head, making him unconscious. He was swept under the sail and pinned down by it. The other two men, neither of whom could swim, managed to scramble on to the capsized skiff. They saw no sign of Mooney, and knowing that he was a swimmer, thought he had struck out for the shore. It wasn’t until several minutes later that it occurred to one of them that their comrade might be pinned under the sail.

“With a good deal of personal risk, for his hold was insecure and he couldn’t swim, this chap managed to get hold of the canvas and somehow he said he didn’t know how, himself succeeded in getting Mooney out from under the sail. He gripped Mooney’s collar, but could not lift his head above water. All that he could do was barely to hold on.”

“Showed a good deal of grit to do even that, it seems to me,” said one of the life-savers. “It’s an awful feeling to be nearly drowned.”

“It did show grit,” agreed Johnson. “If it had been a drowning woman with long hair, she could have been held up all right; but a grip on the collar, when the head is hanging forward, means a dead lift out of water. I don’t wonder that the young fellow wasn’t able to do it.

“When my pal reached there, he got Mooney aboard, the other two clambered in and they started for the shore. Mooney was as purple as a grape and his arms were so stiff that two men, one on each side, could barely move them. Nearly a quart of water was got out of him, and they had an awful job prying open his jaws.

“They worked over him for an hour and twenty minutes before there was the slightest sign of life. Not until twenty-five minutes more did the heart begin, and Mooney did not regain consciousness until nine hours later. As his watch had stopped at 4:20 P.M. and it was 4:53 when Streeter got ashore, that man’s heart had stopped, his breathing had stopped and he had been practically dead for more than two hours.”

“Just goes to show,” said one of the others, “that it isn’t merely swallowing water that drowns a fellow.”

“It isn’t swallowing water at all, as I understand,” rejoined another member of the group. “Drowning’s a kind of poisoning of the blood because the lungs can’t get oxygen. It’s just like choking to death or being hanged.”

There was a call from within.

“Murchison!”

The life-saver who had just been speaking, got up quickly and went in to relieve Ryan.

“Any luck?” Johnson asked, as the latter came out.

The Irishman shook his head.

“There’s nothin’ yet, but he moight come round anny minute,” was his reply, with the invincible optimism of his race.

Eric had been thinking of Murchison’s description of drowning.

“Why did they roll half-drowned people on a barrel in the old times?” he asked.

“Sure, they were ijits,” Ryan answered cheerfully.

“But what was the idea? To get the water out?”

“Just that. They used to think the lungs were a tank.”

“Murchison was saying that people drowned because they couldn’t get oxygen. Isn’t there oxygen in water?”

“Av coorse there is,” the Irishman replied. “But ye’ve got to have the gills of a fish to use it. Annyhow, a man’s got warm blood an’ a fish has cold. It takes a lot of oxygen to get a man’s blood warm. An’ if he doesn’t get it, he dies.

“Ye see, Eric,” he continued, “that’s why ye’ve got to go on workin’ over a drowned man. Ye can’t tell how badly he’s poisoned. An’ it’s honest I am in tellin’ ye that I think we’ve got a chance in there.”

“You do?”

“I do that,” was the cheery answer. “There’s no tellin’.”

Again came that cry from the station, a cry whose very repetition made it all the more nerve-racking,

“I’ve drowned him! I’ve drowned him! I had to kick him free to save myself!”

Eric shivered. There was something gruesome in the monotony of the same words over and over again. The noises on the beach died down. Several of the men, who did not live at the station-house, went to their cottages. The boy gave a jump when he heard a step behind him and saw the old doctor standing there.

The night was very still. Nothing could be heard but the roar of the surf on the beach. Eric, who was imaginative, thought that the surf seemed to be triumphing in having snatched another life. Feeling sure that the doctor would understand him, the boy turned and said,

“Doctor, shall we be able to beat out the sea?”

The Highland imagination of the doctor instantly caught the lad’s meaning.

“You’ve heard it, too!” he said. “Many and many’s the time I’ve thought the sea was skreeling in triumph when a drowned man was brought ashore. But I’ve snatched a many back.”

“Will you ” began the boy.

“Doctor!” came a cry from within.

“Well?” he answered eagerly, stepping to the door.

“I thought I caught a breath!”

The doctor’s keen eyes glinted as he knelt beside the prostrate figure.

Nine, ten, eleven times the weight of the life-saver was brought forward and released. At the twelfth, there was a slight respiration.

“Did you see, Doctor?” he cried, pausing in his work.

“What the mischief are you stopping for?” was the doctor’s impatient answer. Then he added, “You’re doing splendidly, Murchison; just keep it up!”

Five more minutes passed without a single sign. Both men had begun to feel that possibly they had been mistaken, when there was a definite flutter of an eyelid. The surfman would have given a triumphant shout but for the doctor’s rebuke a moment or two before.

Quietly the old Scotchman began to promote circulation by rubbing the legs upward, so as to drive the venous blood to the heart and thus try to start its action. Almost ten minutes elapsed before the doctor’s patience was rewarded with the faint throb of a heart-beat, then another. It was soft and irregular at first, but gradually the blood began to move through the arteries and in a few minutes a pulse could be felt. The lips lost a little of their blue color and breathing began.

“He’s got a grand heart!” said the old doctor, ten minutes later, as the pulse-beats began to come with regularity. “I hardly believed that we could bring him round. It’s a good thing it was this chap and not the other. We could never have saved yon man if he had been half as long submerged.”

“You really think that we shall save him?” queried Eric, more to hear the doctor’s assurance than because of any doubt of the result.

“We have saved him,” was the reply. “In a day or two he’ll be as well as he ever was. And, to my thinking, he’ll be wiser than he was before, for he’ll never do such a silly thing as to go out for a swim at night-time after dinner with well, after a heavy dinner.”

“Seems too bad that we can’t tell his friend,” the boy suggested. “It’s just awful to hear him accusing himself all through the night.”

“If he’s asleep,” the doctor answered, “that’s better for him than anything else. Oh, I don’t know,” he continued, “he seems to be stirring. Do you want to tell him?”

Eric flashed a grateful glance at the doctor.

“If I might?”

“Go ahead!”

“Mr. Willett,” said the boy, coming close to the stretcher. “Mr. Willett!”

“Well?” said the rescued man, waking out of a remorse-haunted dream.

“Jake has been saved. He’s all right.”

In spite of his exhaustion and his sudden awakening from sleep, the first man who had been rescued sat up on the stretcher and craned his head forward to see his friend. In spite of the sufferer’s bruised and swollen appearance, it was evident to the most inexperienced eye that life was not extinct. The convalescent looked at the doctor and tried to find words, but something in his throat choked him.

He reached out and grasped the boy’s hand, holding it tightly. Then, looking around the station, he said softly,

“A man’s world is a good world to live in!”