Read CHAPTER XXVIII - ROUGH WATER of Brandon of the Engineers , free online book, by Harold Bindloss, on ReadCentral.com.

As soon as they entered port, Dick and Jake went to the office of a Spanish shipbroker, who offered them his polite sympathy.

“We had very little cargo here, and when he heard there was some dyewood at San Ignacio the captain steamed off again,” he explained.

“What sort of a port is San Ignacio, and how far is it?” Dick asked.

“It is an aldea on the shore of a lagoon, with a wharf that small boats can reach, about forty miles from here.”

“Then they take the dyewood off in boats?  If there is much of the stuff, it would be a long job.”

“That is so, senor.  The boats can only reach the wharf when the tide is high.  At other times, the cargo must be carried down through the mud.”

“Have you a large chart of this coast?”

The broker brought a chart and Dick studied it for some minutes, making notes in his pocket-book.  Then he looked up.

“Where can I get fresh water?”

The broker asked how much he wanted and after taking some paper money gave him a ticket.

“There is a pipe on the wharf and when the peon sees the receipt he will fill your tanks.”

Dick thanked him and going out with Jake found their fireman asleep in a wine-shop.  They had some trouble in wakening the man and after sending him off to get the water, ordered some wine.  The room was dirty and filled with flies, but the lattice shutters kept out the heat and they found the shadow pleasant after the glare outside.  Jake dropped into a cane chair with a sigh of content.  He felt cramped and stiff after the long journey in the narrow cockpit of the plunging launch, and was sensible of an enjoyable lassitude.  It would be delightful to lounge about in the shade after refreshing himself with two or three cool drinks, but he had misgivings that this was not what Dick meant to do.  When he had drained a large glass of light, sweet wine, he felt peacefully at ease, and resting his head on the chair-back closed his eyes.  After this he was conscious of nothing until Dick said:  “It’s not worth while to go to sleep.”

“Not worth while?” Jake grumbled drowsily.  “I was awake all last night.  It’s quiet and cool here and I can’t stand for being broiled outside.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to.  We start as soon as Maccario has filled the tank.”

Jake roused himself with a jerk.  Dick leaned forward wearily with his elbow on the table, but he looked resolute.

“Then you haven’t let up yet?  You’re going on to the lagoon?”

“Certainly,” said Dick.  “The Danish boat has an hour’s start, but she only steams eight or nine knots and it will take some time to load her cargo.”

“But we can’t drive the launch hard.  The breeze is knocking up the sea.”

“We’ll try,” Dick answered, and Jake growled in protest.  His dream of rest and sleep, and perhaps some mildly exciting adventure when the citizens came out in the cool of the evening, had been rudely banished.  Moreover, he had had another reason for being philosophical when he thought his comrade baulked.

“It’s a fool trick.  She won’t make it if the sea gets bad.”

Dick smiled dryly.  “We can turn back if we find her getting swamped.  It looks as if you were not very anxious to overtake Kenwardine.”

“I’m not,” Jake admitted.  “If you’re determined to go, I’m coming, but I’d be glad of a good excuse for letting the matter drop.”

Somewhat to his surprise, Dick gave him a sympathetic nod.  “I know; I’ve felt like that, but the thing can’t be dropped.  It’s a hateful job, but it must be finished now.”

“Very well,” Jake answered, getting up.  “If we must go, the sooner we start the better.”

The launch looked very small and dirty when they looked down on her from the wharf, and Jake noted how the surf broke upon the end of the sheltering point.  Its deep throbbing roar warned him what they might expect when they reached open water, but he went down the steps and helped Dick to tighten some bearing brasses, after which a peon threw down their ropes and the screw began to rattle.  With a few puffs of steam from her funnel the launch moved away and presently met the broken swell at the harbor mouth.  Then her easy motion changed to a drunken lurch and Jake gazed with misgivings at the white-topped seas ahead.

She went through the first comber’s crest with her forefoot in the air and the foam washing deep along the tilted deck, while the counter vanished in a white upheaval.  Then it swung up in turn, and frames and planking shook as the engine ran away.  This happened at short intervals as she fought her way to windward in erratic jerks, while showers of spray and cinders blew aft into the face of her crew.

Dick drove her out until the sea got longer and more regular, when he turned and followed the coast, but the flashing blue and white rollers were now on her beam and flung her to lee as they passed.  Sometimes one washed across her low counter, and sometimes her forward half was buried in a tumultuous rush of foam.  The pump was soon started and they kept it going, but the water gathered in the crank-pit, where it was churned into lather, and Jake and Maccario relieved each other at helping the pump with a bucket.  They were drenched and half blinded by the spray, but it was obvious that their labor was needed and they persevered.

Stopping for breath now and then, with his back to the wind, Jake glanced at the coast as the boat swung up with a sea.  It made a hazy blur against the brilliant sky, but his eyes were smarting and dazzled.  There was a confusing glitter all around him, and even the blue hollows they plunged into were filled with a luminous glow.  Still he thought they made progress, though the launch was drifting to leeward fast, and he told Dick, who headed her out a point or two.

“This is not the usual sea breeze; it’s blowing really fresh,” he said.  “Do you think it will drop at sundown?”

“I’m not sure,” Dick replied, shading his eyes as he glanced at the windward horizon.

“Then suppose it doesn’t drop?”

“If the sea gets dangerous, we’ll put the helm up and run for shelter.”

“Where do you expect to find it?”

“I don’t know,” Dick admitted.  “There are reefs and shoals along the coast that we might get in behind.”

Jake laughed.  “Well, I guess this is a pretty rash adventure.  You won’t turn back while you can see, and there are safer things than running for a shoal you don’t know, in the dark.  However, there’s a point one might get a bearing from abeam and I’ll try to fix our position.  It might be useful later.”

Stooping beside the compass, he gazed at the hazy land across its card, and then crept under the narrow foredeck with a chart.  He felt the bows sweep upwards, pause for a moment, and suddenly lurch down, but now the sea was long and regular, the motion was rhythmic.  Besides, the thud and gurgle of water outside the boat’s thin planks were soothing and harmonized with the measured beat of the screw.  Jake got drowsy and although he had meant to take another bearing when he thought he could double the angle, presently fell asleep.

It was getting dark when he awoke and crept into the cockpit.  There was a change in the motion, for the launch did not roll so much and the combers no longer broke in showers of spray against her side.  She swung up with a swift but easy lift, the foam boiling high about her rail, and then gently slid down into the trough.  It was plain that she was running before the wind, but Jake felt that he must pull himself together when he looked aft, for there is something strangely daunting in a big following sea.  A high, white-topped ridge rolled up behind the craft, roaring as it chased her, while a stream of spray blew from its curling crest.  It hid the rollers that came behind; there was nothing to be seen but a hill of water, and Jake found it a relief to fix his eyes ahead.  The backs of the seas were smoother and less disturbing to watch as they faded into the gathering dark.  When the comber passed, he turned to Dick, who stood, alert and highly strung, at the helm.

“You’re heading for the land,” he said.  “What are you steering by?”

“I got the bearing of a point I thought I recognized on the chart before I lost sight of the coast.  There’s a long reef outshore of it, with a break near the point.  If we can get through, we might find shelter.”

“Suppose there’s something wrong with your bearing, or you can’t make good your course?”

“Then there’ll be trouble,” Dick answered grimly.  “We’ll have the reef to lee and she won’t steam out again.”

Jake put a kettle on the cylinder-top and took some provisions from a locker.  He was hungry and thought he might need all the strength he had, while he did not want to look at the sea.  The pump was clanking hard, but he could hear the water wash about under the floorings, and the launch was very wet.  Darkness fell as he prepared a meal with the fireman’s help, and they ate by the dim light of the engine-lamp, while Dick, to whom they handed portions, crouched at the helm, gazing close into the illuminated compass.  Sometimes he missed the food they held out and it dropped and was washed into the pump-well, but he ate what he could without moving his eyes.

Since he must find the opening in the reef, much depended on his steering an accurate course, but this was difficult, because he had to bear away before the largest combers.  Moreover, the erratic motion of a short boat in broken water keeps the compass-card rocking to and fro, and long practise is needed to hit the mean of its oscillations.  As a matter of fact, Dick knew he was leaving much to luck.

After a time, they heard a hoarse roar.  Since the sound would not carry far to windward, they knew the reef was close ahead, but where the opening lay was another matter.  Dick had no guide except the compass, and as the launch would probably swamp if he tried to bring her round head to sea, he must run on and take the risk.  By and by, Jake, straining his eyes to pierce the gloom, called out as he saw a ghostly white glimmer to starboard.  This was the surf spouting on the reef and if it marked the edge of the channel, they would be safe in going to port; if not, the launch would very shortly be hurled upon the barrier.

Dick stood up and gazed ahead.  The white patch was getting plainer, but he could see nothing else.  There was, however, a difference in the motion, and the sea was confused.  He ordered the engine to be slowed, and they ran on until the belt of foam bore abeam.  They must be almost upon the reef now, or else in the channel, and for the next minute or two nobody spoke.  If they had missed the gap, the first warning would be a shock, and then the combers that rolled up behind them would destroy the stranded craft.

She did not strike; the surf was level with her quarter, and Jake, thrusting down a long boathook, found no bottom.  In another minute or two the water suddenly got smooth, and he threw down the boathook.

“We’re through,” he said in a strained voice.  “The reef’s astern.”

“Try the hand-lead,” Dick ordered him, as he changed his course, since he was apparently heading for the beach.

Jake got four fathoms and soon afterwards eighteen feet, when Dick stopped the engine and the launch rolled upon the broken swell.  A dark streak that looked like forest indicated the land, and a line of foam that glimmered with phosphorescent light ran outshore of them.  Now they were to lee of the reef, the hoarse clamor of the surf rang about the boat.  Unfolding the chart, they studied it by the engine-lamp.  It was on too small a scale to give many details, but they saw that the reef ran roughly level with the coast and ended in a nest of shoals near a point.

“We could ride out a gale here,” Jake remarked.

“We could, if we wanted,” Dick replied.

Jake looked at him rather hard and then made a sign of resignation.  “Well, I guess I’ve had enough, but if you’re going on ­ How do you reckon you’ll get through the shoals ahead?”

“I imagine some of them are mangrove islands, and if so, there’ll be a channel of a sort between them.  In fact, the chart the broker showed me indicated something of the kind.  With good luck we may find it.”

“Very well,” said Jake.  “I’m glad to think it will be a soft bottom if we run aground.”

They went on, keeping, so far as they could judge, midway between reef and beach, but after a time the lead showed shoaling water and Jake used the boathook instead.  Then the sky cleared and a half-moon came out, and they saw haze and the loom of trees outshore of them.  Slowing the engine, they moved on cautiously while the water gradually got shallower, until glistening banks of mud began to break the surface.  Then they stopped the engine, but found the launch still moved forward.

“I imagine it’s about four hours’ flood,” Dick remarked.  “That means the water will rise for some time yet, and although the current’s with us now I think we can’t be far off the meeting of the tides.”

Jake nodded.  In places of the kind, the stream often runs in from both ends until it joins and flows in one direction from the shoalest spot.

“Then we ought to find a channel leading out on the other side.”

They let the engine run for a few minutes until the boat touched bottom and stuck fast in the mud.  The wind seemed to be falling and the roar of the surf had got fainter.  Thin haze dimmed the moonlight and there were strange splashings in the water that gently lapped about the belts of mud.  The stream stopped running, but seeing no passage they waited and smoked.

“If we can get out on the other side, we oughtn’t to be very far from the lagoon,” Jake suggested.

Presently there was a faint rippling against the bows and the launch began to swing round.

“The tide’s coming through from the other end,” said Dick.  “We may find a channel if we can push her across the mud.”

For half an hour they laboriously poled her with a long oar and the boathook between the banks of mire.  Sometimes she touched and stuck until the rising water floated her off, and sometimes she scraped along the bottom, but still made progress.  They were breathless and soaked with perspiration, while the foul scum that ran off the oar stained their damp clothes.  Then Jake’s boathook sank a foot or two deeper and finding the depth as good after a few vigorous pushes, they started the engine.

Sour exhalations rose from the wake of the churning screw and there was a curious dragging feel in the boat’s motion, as if she were pulling a body of water after her, but this was less marked when Jake found three or four feet, and by and by he threw down the pole and they went half-speed ahead.  After a time, the mangroves outshore got farther off, the air smelt fresher, and small ripples broke the surface of the widening channel.  They went full-speed, the trees faded, and a swell that set her rocking met the boat, although there still seemed to be a barrier of sand or mud between her and open sea.

Giving Jake the helm, Dick crawled under the foredeck, where the floorings were drier than anywhere else, and lay smoking and thinking until day broke.  The light, which grew brighter rapidly, showed a glistening line of surf to seaward and mangrove forest on a point ahead.  Beyond this there seemed to be an inlet, and then the shore curved out again.  As they passed the point Dick stood up on deck and presently saw two tall spars rise above the mist.  A few minutes later, the top of a funnel appeared, and then a sharp metallic rattle rang through the haze.

“We’re in the lagoon,” he said.  “That’s the Danish boat and she hasn’t finished heaving cargo on board.”