Read CHAPTER XII - THE GRAVEYARD OF THE DEEP of The Boy With the U. S. Life-Savers , free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on ReadCentral.com.

Following on the information given by the captain of the Norwegian steamer, which had so nearly been looted by wreckers, the Miami started on a search for the decoy light that had led that steamer to her fate. The captain was an able navigator, and, until the moment he had seen the false light and been led astray by it, he had been absolutely upon his right course. Under such circumstances it was not difficult to find the latitude and longitude where the captain reported having first seen the light. He had also given the bearing in the log, so the Miami crept slowly forward in the direction indicated, heaving the lead constantly for treacherous shoals.

From where the captain of the steamer had cited his position there was not a single sign of a lighthouse or a light. But, as the Miami crept on, far out of the regular ship’s channel, as suddenly as though it had been just placed there, rose a spar, held in place with three wire stays. On the top was a little round platform, not more than a foot across, and spikes had been driven into the mast to act as a ladder by which to climb it. The Miami was almost on the tiny outcrop of rock before the mast was visible. It was painted a watery blue, which merged in with the color of both sea and sky, and was exceedingly difficult to see.

A boat’s crew was sent ashore to demolish the mast and also to make a search for the light. To Eric, who went ashore with the men, it was quite an exciting hunt, “almost like looking for Captain Kidd’s treasure,” as he said afterwards to his chum, the young lieutenant of engineers. The quest was in vain, for though every inch of the islet was searched, there was no sign that the ground had been disturbed. So far as that went, there was very little ground to disturb, for the islet was little more than a coral rock, nearly covered at high tide. It was evident that the wreckers, when they were ready for their work, brought the light with them.

As the light for which the decoy was intended to be a substitute was quite a powerful light, with a regular occulting flash, the decoy itself must be powerful, and the Miami was anxious to trace it. If the native wreckers had such a lantern in their possession, probably they had some kind of clockwork and could alter the occultation of their decoy so that it would duplicate any one of several different lights on the coast.

It was not until some time afterwards that the Lighthouse Service learned that there actually had been such a light in the hands of the wreckers at one time. In a quarrel among themselves, however, over the division of the spoils of a small schooner which had run ashore, one of the disgruntled wreckers had thrown the lantern overboard in deep water.

“I hadn’t supposed there was anything of that sort going on now, sir,” said Eric to one of the junior lieutenants, discussing the question of the wreckers’ lights.

“Nor had I,” was the rejoinder. “The business of being a wrecker has changed a good deal. There’s plenty of it, still, but it has become a recognized profession. A wrecker, now, has offices in a big seaport, with a fleet of ocean-going tugs and a big bank-roll. When a ship is reported ashore, either her owners pay him to float her, or he buys the wreck outright and takes his chances of being able to recover the purchase price. If luck is with him, he may get a good ship and cargo cheap, but if fortune frowns and a storm breaks her up before he can save the cargo, then he suffers a heavy loss. It’s a good business, but a big gamble.”

“I should think there was a lot of excitement in that business, yet!”

“Yes, there is. But it is organized now and wonderfully handled commercially. It’s only in places like these outlying fringes of the Bahamas, that the native wrecker the one who lives by robbery and loot can still be found. In the old days, a decoy light was a regular thing. There were organizations that had offices in the cities, who used to make a business of this wrecking. Barnegat, New Jersey, was a famous point in the first part of last century. All the inhabitants were in league with the wreckers, there. Many and many a good vessel, in the early days of American shipping, was lured directly on to the treacherous beach, while the wreckers looted everything they could get, and plundered the passengers and crew. That’s all done away with now. The United States coast is too thoroughly patrolled by the Coast Guard for any such business as that to flourish.

“I think the Wolf Rock story is perhaps the best example of the idea of deliberately wrecking vessels. You’ve heard of Wolf Rock?”

“Yes, sir,” said the boy, “it’s in the English Channel, off the coast of Devonshire.”

“Did you ever hear why that particular rock was called Wolf Rock?”

“No, sir,” answered Eric, “I don’t think I ever did. Is it because of the shape of it, or because the sea breaking over it is like the fangs of a wolf or something like that? There generally isn’t an awful lot of reason for the names of rocks and reefs.”

“There is for this one,” said his friend. “It isn’t because it looks like a wolf, but because it howls like a wolf.”

“You mean the fog-horn does?”

“No, I mean the rock does, or did,” was the reply.

“How?”

“You’ve heard of blow-holes?”

“Yes, sir,” said Eric, “there’s one at the Farallones Islands. You mean those holes that make a noise when the tide comes in and out?”

“That’s the idea. The Wolf Rock was a most famous case of that. It had a large cavern inside and a very small hole through the rock at the ceiling of the cavern. Then there was a cleft or fissure through the rock right down to this little hole. You can see for yourself that when the tide started to come in, it closed the sea entrance to the cavern, imprisoning a lot of air. Then, as the tide rose steadily, the pressure of the water drove the air out of the cavern through this little hole, continually making an intermittent blowing sound. The great cleft in the rock acted like the horn of an immense megaphone. This gave rise to a roar, high-pitched owing to the smallness of the hole like a wolf’s howl. Night and day, but more especially when the tide was coming in, the howl of the Wolf Rock sounded over the sea to warn mariners of the perilous crag.”

“Handy,” remarked Eric; “it would save the Lighthouse Service a good bit of money if every rock could be fixed like that.”

“It didn’t do the English Lighthouse Service much good,” said his friend. “What do you suppose the good people of Devonshire did? They set to work and hunted for weeks to try to find the hole, but it was so small that they failed. At last, having made up their minds that the Wolf Rock should cease to give its warning, they combined together and carted boulders from the beach to the top of the rock, with incredible labor, and after a month’s hard work filled up the entire lower part of the chasm and then shoveled small stones on top.”

“And thus silenced the wolf’s howl?”

“Very nearly. If you stand on Wolf Rock now, you can still hear a low moaning sound as the tide comes in, but it’s very faint. So far as a warning is concerned, the wolf is chained forever.”

“And did the people profit by it, sir?”

“Within three months from the time of the silencing of the wolf, over thirty vessels crashed to pieces on the rocks around, and the people of the villages were made rich by the wreckage of the cargoes that came floating in, or by the plunder they took from the vessels which held together after the storm had passed.”

“And those who were drowned?”

“They were drowned, that was all,” the other said. “Of course if any survivors were washed ashore, the coast folk treated them very kindly.”

“I don’t suppose,” Eric remarked, “that they ever told these survivors that they had done their best to make them the victims of the hungry sea?”

“Hardly! You’ve got to remember that people often have queer local ways. There are superstitions you can’t defend on any ground. You know, at one time, it was considered bad luck to try to save any one who had been partly drowned. There are plenty of people, even nowadays, who won’t cut down a would-be suicide who has hanged himself because they think it’s bad luck.

“So far as the sea and sailors are concerned, I believe there’s more humanity than on land. It’s very rarely that you ever hear of a vessel that has refused to go to another’s assistance. I think, too, the whole work of the Coast Guard is a standing example of the modern idea that nothing is more important than the saving of life.”

“It often takes some big disaster to start it, though,” said Eric. “After all, this Ice Patrol that the Miami is going on next month, was only begun as a result of the sinking of the Titanic, wasn’t it?”

“That’s all. But wasn’t that reason enough?”

“It surely was,” agreed the boy.

“I think the summer ice patrol is a mighty useful thing. If the Seneca keeps the lane of ocean travel free of derelicts and we cover the Ice Patrol of that same steamship lane, it ought to make a difference in the safety of ships at sea. Ever see a big iceberg, Mr. Swift?”

“Heaps of them, sir,” answered the lad. “I was on the Bering Sea patrol last year.”

“That’s right. But you’ll find the Atlantic bergs are different. There’s a lot of ice in the North Pacific but it’s mostly in small pans. No big stuff comes through Bering Strait. It would strand. And then the Aleutian and Kuril Islands make a sort of breakwater to head off big bergs. But in the North Atlantic there’s nothing to keep the big Greenland glacier breaks from floating south right into the very path of the steamers. In fact that’s what they do. You’ll see some real ones this summer.”

As the lieutenant had pointed out to him, the whole ice question assumed great importance, viewed in the light of the Atlantic Ice Patrol. The Miami, on orders from the department, steamed north and relieved the Seneca on duty. She picked up the bergs which the Seneca had found and plotted their positions on the chart. Every day at eight bells of the middle watch (4 A.M.) the wireless operator on the Miami sent to the Hydrographic office a statement as to the exact position of all bergs that had been sighted and the amount of their probable daily drift. This information was sent out again as a daily ice warning to merchant vessels by the Hydrographic Bureau.

The experiment of trying to demolish the larger bergs by gunnery was tried, and a six-pound shot was fired full at close range at one of the bergs. But it had no other result than to shake down a barrelful of snow-like dust. Following up the various bergs kept the Miami busy. At the same time she sent and received messages from passing steamers along the line of travel.

Only one large berg really got into a dangerous position, and this one was as carefully plotted and its position as thoroughly made known to vessels navigating the Atlantic as though it were a fixture. The course of the large Atlantic greyhound La France lay directly in the path of the berg and, had it not been for the warnings of the Miami, there might have been another ocean disaster to record. As the summer months approached, the cruising was delightful but not particularly interesting, and Eric, who craved excitement, was glad when, at the end of June, the Miami was ordered to resume her old station at Key West.

Two months passed before an emergency arose, but when it did come, it proved to be one to tax the Coast Guard cutter to the full. Toward the end of September a storm warning of a hurricane was issued, and the Miami, which was searching for a derelict reported two hundred miles west of Daytona, Florida, decided to run for Matanzas Inlet. About daylight the next morning, the first actual warning of the hurricane, aside from the notice sent out by the Weather Bureau, began to show itself in short gusty puffs. The barometer fell low, finally touching 28 deg., lower than Eric had ever seen before.

The sky clouded gradually, and by breakfast time, the wind was freshening from the southeast. By ten o’clock, the wind had risen to half a gale, and before noon it was blowing not less than forty to fifty miles an hour. The Miami made good weather, but in the afternoon the hurricane reached such a pitch of violence that it was decided to run before the storm and try for the lee of Cape Fear, possibly finding a safe anchorage in Masonboro Inlet.

As evening drew on the seas became appalling. The Miami pitched her nose down in the water, shipping it green with almost every dive, while her propeller raced ten feet clear of water; next instant her stern would settle as though she would never rise, while the bow climbed up and up as the trough rolled underneath her. Eric, who was absolutely free of any fear of the sea, enjoyed the storm extremely. It was tiring, however, for, every second of the time, one had to hang on to something for fear either of being washed overboard, or hurled around like a catapult from a sling. When, therefore, the gaunt figure of Cape Fear light was passed and the Miami slipped in behind the lee of Smith Island, every one felt a relief from the mad tossing.

They had not known this relief for more than about four minutes when the spluttering of the wireless began.

“I’ll bet that’s some one in trouble,” said Eric.

“Probably,” his friend, the second lieutenant said, overhearing him. “Haven’t you been expecting it?”

“Hadn’t thought of it, sir,” said the boy. “We’d plenty to do to get in here ourselves. Yes, there goes Mr. Keelson down to the captain. Could we find out what’s up, sir?”

The two young officers sauntered to the wireless operator’s cabin.

“Somebody in trouble, I suppose, Wilson,” the lieutenant said.

“Yes, sir,” the operator answered, “two-masted steamer Union reported in distress, partly dismasted and with her engines disabled, anchored in deep water off the Lookout Shoal.”

“Probably dragging, sir?” queried Eric, knowing that his companion knew the coast well.

“Most likely,” the lieutenant answered. “If she’s off Lookout, and the wind veers round to the south’ard which it’s doing that’ll send her to Cape Hatteras and Davy Jones’ locker in a hurry. We may get there in time, but there’s not much we can do while this weather lasts.”

“Hatteras is called the ‘graveyard of ships,’ isn’t it?”

“There are a good many places in the world thus honored,” said the lieutenant, “and, so far as America is concerned, there are two, Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras. There are five times as many wrecks between Barnegat Point and Seguin Island as there are in all the other coasts of the United States put together, but in proportion to the amount of shipping that passes, Hatteras is the worst point in the world.”

“Worse than the Horn?”

“A great deal,” was the reply. “Shipmasters know the dangers of Cape Horn and give it a wide berth though steamers nowadays generally use the Straits of Magellan but Cape Hatteras is different. It juts right out in the path of vessels running down the coast so that a ship makes almost a right angle at that point.”

“It’s a wonder they don’t build a lighthouse out on the shoals.”

“It can’t be done,” said the other, shaking his head. “The contract was awarded once, but the project fell through. The builder found it impossible to carry it out. There’s a New York firm that has been after the Lighthouse Department for a long time to get a contract for the building of a lighthouse on the shoals of Hatteras, but it wants four million dollars, and the government thinks that a bit steep. A first-class lightship can be kept in commission on the station for a fraction of that sum.”

“But is a lightship just as good?”

“N-no,” the other answered dubiously, “a lightship, as such, is not as good as a lighthouse, supposing both were at the same point. But a lightship can always be placed in a more advantageous position than a lighthouse, and in places where a lighthouse is impossible, a lightship is invaluable. I should be inclined to say that the Diamond Shoals Lightship off Cape Hatteras, the Frying Pan Shoals Lightship off Cape Fear and the Nantucket Shoals Lightship off Montauk Point would take rank as three of the most important lightships in the world.”

“But I should think they would get blown off their stations every once in a while,” suggested Eric.

“They do,” said the other; “not very often, but they do.”

“Then what happens?”

“They steam back to their station and lie to as near it as possible. At one time lightships used to be without any kind of propelling machinery, and sometimes they were driven ashore. That happened to a German lightship at the mouth of the Elbe, not so long ago, and all the crew were lost.”

“The Columbia River lightship went adrift, too, I remember,” said the boy; “they had to haul her back through the woods in order to get her floated again and taken to her station.”

“Exactly,” said his friend, “that was another case of a lightship not having her own steam. It’s not only to enable a lightship keeping to her station, or running to safety in the event of being blown off her moorings, but you can see that in a severe storm, if a lightship can steam ahead into the eye of the wind, she can take a lot of the strain off her anchors. To tell you the truth, it’s my private opinion that the Diamond Shoals Lightship will need to-night every pound of steam she can get. Look for’ard!”

The lieutenant pointed with his finger. The Miami, starting off to help the disabled steamer in trouble, had turned her stern to the easy anchorage and safe haven not more than two miles away, and was headed for the open sea. Still under the lee of Cape Fear, the force of the wind was greatly moderated and the sea was not more than ordinarily rough. But where the lieutenant pointed, it was easy to see that the storm was raging in its full fury. The waves were running high, their crests whipped into spray by the gusts.

“You’re right, sir,” Eric agreed, “we’re in for it! And, what’s more, here it comes now!”

Almost with the word the Miami got into the full reach of the storm, halted, gave a convulsive stagger, than plunged into the smother. For a minute or two no one on deck could have told what had happened. The shriek of the hurricane through her cordage, the harsh roaring of the tempest-whipped sea, and the vengeful boom of the waves as they threw their tons of water on the deck of the sturdy vessel made the senses reel.

But the engines of the Miami throbbed on steadily in defiance of the tempest’s fury. The Coast Guard cutter, like every member of her crew, was picked for service, for stern and exalted service. Hurricanes might hurl their monstrous strength upon her, eager billows might snatch at her with their crushing gripe, shoals and reefs might hunger greedily with foam-flecked fangs, still the Miami plowed on through the storm. From realms unknown where the elements hold council of discord, the forces of destruction launched themselves upon her, but the white ship of rescue steadily steamed on, with her lights quietly burning and her officers and crew going about their duties in calm and perfect confidence.

Morning broke with that blue-gray veiling of the world in a covering of storm that sailors know so well. It was one of those mornings when the best of ships looks worn and drazzled. The Miami showed scars from her night’s battle with the tempest. One of the starboard boats had been stove in, and the davits twisted with the force of a wave that had come aboard. Even the most rigid discipline and the most perfect order failed to make the little vessel trim. There was an “out all night” appearance to the cutter which told more than great actual damage could have done the dogged endurance of the vessel against the fury of wind and sea.

But, down in the engine-room, the unceasing metal fingers that are the children of men’s brains throbbed steadily, and the screw of the little vessel drove her on to her work of rescue. On deck, the Coast Guard men, clear-eyed and determined, handled their day’s routine with a sublime disregard of the dangers of the sea. Other vessels might scurry to safe harbors, but the Miami, flying the colors of Uncle Sam, set out on her mission to save, with never a moment’s halting.

On the Miami drove. Presently, the crow’s-nest lookout reported a steamer. She was one of the big West Indian liners, and she came reeling towards the cutter with lurchings that were alarming to behold. Only a certain quick jauntiness of recovery told the tale that she, too, was confident of her powers to weather the storm. She called by wireless that she had passed the disabled steamer Union two hours before, that the vessel was dragging her anchors and was in too shoal water for the liner to attempt a rescue.

“She’s going to strike, sure,” said Eric to his friend Homer, as the news of the message was received.

“And going right over the Diamond Shoals. How would you like to have charge of the Miami now, Eric?”

The boy looked thoughtful.

“A year or two ago,” he answered, “when I was in the Academy, I’d have been tickled to death at the chance. Right now, when I think I know a bit more, I’m quite satisfied to have Keelson on the bridge. I notice the captain’s been around a good bit, too.”

“Our chief has been on the job below nearly all night, as well,” Homer replied. “I’m thinking, Eric, that this is about as bad weather as any vessel can live through!”

On through the storm the Miami sped, her engine driving at its fullest speed despite the terrific strain put upon it when the vessel heaved her stern out of water and the screw raced madly with nothing to catch. On she sped, though her bow was pointed straight for the most treacherous shoals on the Atlantic coast, bars of avid quicksand, on which thousands of vessels had gone to swift and awful destruction. On toward the Diamond Shoals the cutter pierced her way, though the gray veil of driving spray hid everything a score of fathom before the vessel’s bow.

“By the deep four!” called out the leadsman, as the water shallowed.

Eric felt an uncomfortable sensation at the pit of his stomach. Four fathoms! This was within a few feet of the bottom of the vessel. If she should strike!

But the first lieutenant, unperturbed, peered out into the grayness. The boy felt an overwhelming admiration of a man who could dare to take a ship over the worst piece of coast in all the broad Atlantic, in a driving hurricane, with never a landmark or a light to guide him, and hold his nerve cool and self-assured. The captain was on the bridge, but Eric noted that he never spoke to the first lieutenant. This, the boy thought, told even more the spirit of the Coast Guard. Each man had faith in the knowledge and skill of the other.

Into the very jaws of the breakers the little cutter sped, and, even while the boy was looking fearfully on every side of him to see the curling waves breaking on shoals not a hundred feet away, there appeared before them the wrecked and disabled steamer. Over the bars the vessel had pounded, her foretopmast had gone by the board, and she seemed in hopeless case.

So powerful was the gale that it had plucked the hapless steamer out of the jaws of the sucking sand, and flung her, like a plaything, into the breakers beyond. The Miami slowed down, her first pause in that awful race, which was ending in the maze of the Diamond Shoals, with waves breaking on every side and a hurricane whistling overhead.

It seemed even the most reckless foolhardiness to go on a fathom further, but the first lieutenant seemed to know the bottom as though it were a peaceful lane in a New England countryside, and after the Union, the Coast Guard cutter crept warily. Even the boatswain muttered under his breath,

“We’ll never get out o’ this!”

But, foot by foot, almost, the boy thought, step by step, the Miami overhauled the wrecked vessel.

Then from the long silence that had reigned on the bridge, suddenly issued a torrent of orders. The decks of the cutter seemed to bristle with men, as when Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth. Eric, though quick and keen, had all he could do to fulfil the part of the work that was given him and set the crew at the lines of the breeches-buoy. Every man was on deck and every man was working with frantic haste.

In a fraction of time that seemed but a few seconds, a line was shot to the Union, made fast by her crew on board, the breeches-buoy was hauled out and the first of the men from the wreck was on the way to the Miami. All this had been done in the few minutes that passed while the cutter held herself within fifteen fathom of the schooner. Then the Miami dropped her anchor, to hold her place for the breeches-buoy.

Amid the scream of the gale in the rigging, and the pounding of the breakers on the shoals, the men worked like fiends. Never did ropes slip more quickly through their hands, never did sailors work more feverishly. But, in spite of this wild and furious striving, it was evident that the Miami dare not hold her place. The Union evidently had lost one of her anchors, and the other was not holding in the sand. Every few seconds she dragged, and, in order to prevent the breeches-buoy tackle from being suddenly broken, the Miami had to pay out cable to keep in bearing. Each fathom of chain slipped brought her that much nearer to the shoal.

There were thirty men in the Union’s crew and every man had been brought aboard but the captain, when the Coast Guard cutter reached the edge of the shoal. One minute more would mean success.

At that instant, a savage gust came hurtling in from sea, as though the hurricane was bound to claim at least one victim. The captain of the steamer had just thrust one leg through the breeches-buoy and the Miami’s men, with a cheer, had started to haul him inboard, when that gust struck the wrecked vessel. It keeled her over, snapping the line of the breeches-buoy like a whip, and the captain of the steamer was jerked out into the sea.

Absolutely without thinking of what he did, reverting for the instant back to the old volunteer life-saving work, when every man went on his own initiative, Eric tore off coat, trousers, and shoes, snatched a life-belt, and plunged into the boiling breakers.

At the same second, before even his plunge was noted, the Miami slipped her cable entirely, leaving chain and anchor as booty to the Diamond Shoals and clawed away from the sandbar, not more than twenty feet from her bow.

Eric, keyed to a wild and excited perception, saw the captain of the steamer in the water, a few feet away, and swam to him. He found him conscious but unable to swim, the jerk from the breeches-buoy having twisted a sinew in his thigh.

It was a half a mile to land, and the breakers rose all round them. With a blind intuition the boy struck out for shore. He knew it was no use trying to reach the ship. How long he struggled he scarcely knew, but the Union’s captain, though in pain and crippled, was able to use his arms in swimming and, for a few minutes, from time to time, relieved the boy.

It seemed that hours passed. The chill of failure began to creep into Eric’s spirits. No longer he swam with energy, but with desperation. The hand of the steamer’s captain on his shoulder grew heavier and heavier. Spots danced before his eyes.

Suddenly his comrade spoke.

“A little further, lad,” he said, “a little further. They’ve seen us!”

And, like a great white angel on the water, the power surf-boat of the Cape Hatteras Coast Guard station came flying through the surf upon them. The two branches of the Coast Guard had combined to snatch from the graveyard of the deep its full-expected prey.