Read CHAPTER VIII - THE BELCHING DEATH OF A VOLCANO of The Boy With the U. S. Life-Savers , free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on ReadCentral.com.

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?”

“Yes.”

“An’ smellin’ is another?”

“Of course.”

“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.”

“Generally.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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.

“Why not?”

“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 ”

“Yes, sir?”

“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,

“Unconscious?”

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.”

“Why not?”

“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.