Authors: Theodore Taylor
He tucked his overall pants into his rubber boot-tops, then went out. Boo Dog bounded forward first, pleased to be released. He never seemed to mind cold or plunging headfirst into the chill sound to retrieve ducks, but cared little for stinging rain.
As Ben rounded the back of the house, a flare hung in the black, turbulent sky for a few seconds and he knew instantly what it meant.
A ship was in trouble.
Yet it was odd that he'd come outside at this exact moment; that his mother had sent him out just in time to see the arc; odd that what he'd thought about earlier had come true. His heart began to pound, as usual.
Very likely, the ship had piled up on the shoals and was helpless. It had happened before almost in the same spot. During some storms, more than one ship had climbed up over the shoals, anywhere along the Banks, to come up and crash right on the beach. It made rescue easy. On a few, the men had simply jumped ashore.
He waited for another distress rocket to curve up but none came.
Licking his lips, feeling the excitement surging higher, that strange mixture that always churned in his stomach when there was a wreck, he told Boo they should go over. Then he quickly gathered an armful of wood and took it inside, dumping it noisily into the box, at the same time announcing that he'd seen a flare.
Rachel glanced up, frowning. He knew she'd rather ignore it. It wasn't that she didn't have sympathy for the ship or survivors. He thought she simply wanted to wall it off; pretend it wasn't there. Scared silly it might be Reuben and the El-
He could not fully understand it but knew she had an abiding hatred for the ocean. She hadn't been down to the beach in years. She seldom even looked out across the wide chopping sound toward the mainland.
"I best go over," he said, looking directly at her, hoping for even slight approval.
She increased the speed of her stitches. "They don't need your help, Ben. Filene can do right well without it."
"I best go," he insisted, realizing it was a mistake to even tell her.
She sighed but didn't answer, withdrawing back into herself. A thin woman but strong and durable, as were most Banks women, her nose was long; hair gray. She wore steel-rimmed spectacles when sewing or reading the Bible. Her skin was smooth, showing few wrinkles. She always wore a big straw hat when gardening. Sometimes she looked severe but was kindly and neighborly to anyone as long as they didn't ask what Ben's plans were. She was capable of hearty laughter and wry humor when the weather was calm.
In truth, now that he'd finished what school there was on the Banks, she was afraid Ben might go money fishing or worse. Might find someone to take him on as a ship's cabin boy instead of working now and then for Mr. Burrus up in Chicamacomico village, which the U.S. Post Office had dumbly renamed Rodanthe because ignorant mainlanders couldn't spell the former. They were both Indian names.
Actually, if she'd had the funds she would have boarded him over in Manteo so he could go on to high school. That wasn't likely, though he could read like a scholar and did his arithmetic well. He should certainly go on to high school, she believed. But she also thought it might be inevitable that he'd follow Reuben to sea. Ben had inherited a silent, stubborn roughness from John O'Neal. He was now, as she saw it, a plain ruffian. Reuben, who could be tender, often talked about dirt farming. Ben only talked about the sea and a man he never knewâJohn O'Neal.
"I'm goin', Mama," he said. "You hear?"
She didn't answer, just concentrated on her sewing.
Ben lighted the lantern and went out, Boo Dog following. They went down the lane and began slogging across the wet flats and low dunes toward the beach.
Rachel turned to look at the closed door, his persistence, almost insolence, still in her ears. She sighed deeply. She would have taken Ben and left the Banks long ago except that John and Guthrie were in watery graves nearby. Besides, she owned the land on which they lived, and she wouldn't have known what to do on the mainland; where to live. With Ben's help, she brought in occasional money as a netmaker. Then Reuben sent some home. They had enough. The two years' pension that the government had given her after John capsized was long gone.
She sighed again, wondering how long she'd be able to control the boy. Not very much longer, she thought. The Lord knew she'd tried hard enough to tenderize Ben, she was certain. Even to pretending he was a girl when he was in the cradle and for some time after. That hadn't worked very well.
Rachel inspected the stitching and tried to get her mind off Ben.
OVEMBER WIND CUT
at Ben and Boo Dog as they neared the last sand hills, not only hearing the roar of the surf but feeling its power as it shook the earth. Wind caught spray off the breaker curls and sent it inland in a fine shower. Ben's face was wet. Boo's thick coat was dotted with crystals of water. Had the temperature dropped another five degrees ice would have started to skim on the ooze of the sound shore; cake around the foxtails in the marshes.
They mounted the final low dune and Ben could vaguely see the surfmen in a small knot on the beach. One was holding a red Coston flare that plumed off smoke, making an eerie scene against the background of slamming breakers and shimmering mist. It was a scene Ben knew. But seeing it again he wished so much that his father was among the men so he could feel some party to it.
Two mules had dragged the boat wagon down from the station and a Banker pony had tugged the equipment cart along. The surfmen had already unloaded the gear. But they hadn't set up for a breeches buoy haul, shooting a line out over the ship with the mortar gun; pull in survivors in the swaying canvas sleeve. Nor had they launched the boat.
Boo Dog began barking at the mules and Ben yelled for him to quiet down. He grabbed his scruff and whacked him good, then looked out to sea, trying to pierce the darkness over the crashing rows of breakers, hoping to spot a mast. There was nothing out there. Or, if there was, it was secreted in the night and towering waves.
Looking down at the surf line, turned to froth and thick with boiling sand, pale crimson in the final glows of the Coston flare, he saw the awful sight of splintered timbers, broken spars with rigging still trailing; all kinds of debris. He had never seen it this bad. It stretched into the shadows on either side of the small group of men. They were now beginning to spread along the beach.
Ben knew what it meant. The ship had died out there before anyone could help her. Launch the double-ended boat or get a line on board her. There was nothing to do but search for bodies and hope that someone might have survived.
The lone man standing by the cart had despair on his face as he lit another Coston, making himself a sentinel. Ben quickly recognized him as Filene Midgett, commander of the Heron station. He was of some kin to Ben, as was almost everyone on the Banks.
The flare caught and began to bum, casting a hellish glow on shining, reddened skin. Filene glanced at Ben with anything but a welcome look. Vapor came out of his nostrils and mouth, winding away on the wind. Square-faced, heavy-jawed, he was not pretty to look at, even in sunlight.
"Anythin' I can do to help, Cap'n?" Ben asked, fairly anxious. He could hold the flare, for instance.
Filene shook his head and gazed back at sea.
Ben guessed that he was hoping a swimmer might spot his signal and flop toward it. Watching his heavy features, Ben tried to think of what next to say. He knew Filene and the other surfmen weren't too sure about what he planned to do in years hence. They only knew, even though he was John O'Neal's son, that Rachel had raised him as a girl until he was five, actually putting him in dresses and letting his hair grow long. They didn't know how much damage that had done.
Well, it had done a lot. Ben boiled every time he thought about her doing that. It was a monumental disgrace to do it to a surfman's son.
Once, when he was about nine and hanging around Heron Head station, watching them practice rescues, Filene had asked, "Why 'n tarnation you let that woman keep you in a dress so long?"
It wasn't a fair question, Ben thought. He hadn't had much to say about it when he was five. Filene couldn't reckon with that.
That same afternoon they were practicing with the breeches buoy, firing a line from the Lyle mortar gun over the wreck-pole yardarm; then hauling a man to earth in less than four minutes from the time they started rigging. The breeches buoy looked like a pair of oversized canvas pants and hung from the line on a pulley. The survivor would slip down into it and then hang on for dear life as he swayed over the boiling surf.
To show he wasn't a coward, Ben had said, "Cap'n, let me ride it down."
Filene had laughed. "Go ahead, boy."
Jabez Tillett had said, "Cap'n, mebbe it..." All he got was a withering look for butting in.
Ben started up the fifty-foot pole, heart in his mouth, climbing the spikes that were set for men. He got halfway up and didn't think he could make it. He looked back toward the sand. It seemed a thousand feet.
He swallowed and said, "Help me, John." Then went on to the top.
They brought him down in a wild ride that left his knees shaking. The back of his legs felt like jelly all the way home.
All Filene had said was, "You mighty slow goin' up that pole, Ben."
But whatever they thought of Ben, he knew the surfmen were kings on the Banks. Pure royalty. The jobs, though dangerous beyond belief, were prized. As much for pride as for money. The seven men at each station fished mullet or shad or made another living during the summer, but the winter and spring were reserved for patrolling the beaches and plucking survivors off wrecks. The Carolina stations were stretched every seven miles up to the Virginia line.
Of course, menfolk on the Banks had always been wreckers or lifesavers or had gone to sea in the square-riggers or had fished the sounds in sharpies or Creef boats; ocean-fished with haul nets. It was in the marrow and the worst thing any man could say of another was, "I'd like not to have him in a boat with me." And in the twenty years of the Lifesaving Service, no Banker, to anyone's knowledge, had ever shown a white feather; had ever given anyone the opportunity to call him a coward. Ben did not intend to be the first.
"When did she hit?" Ben shouted, determined to make Filene talk.
"I saw her rocket."
"My rocket," Filene corrected sternly, glaring at Ben.
"Then nobody saw her hit?"
Filene nodded, paying more attention to the sea, naturally, than to Ben.
He was a powerful man, a bit over six feet. His age was about fifty. He'd been a surfman for thirty years, a rescuer even before the Lifesaving Service was founded in 1871. Now, he demanded respect and got it. The same was true of all the keepers. But Midgett was the most famous name in the dan of surfmen. There were a dozen or more in the service.
Filene finally spoke, almost in defense of himself, straining his eyes seaward. He did not really want to speak to Ben, especially this night, but felt he had to talk his piece to someone.
"I sent Luther Gaskins on patrol when she quit rainin' enough to see ten feet ahead."
The beach patrols always went one-half the distance to the next station, punched a dock, and turned back Back and forth. About every hour, meeting the patroller from the next station, usually. But when it was blind with rain or snow it didn't do much good to make the walk or edge along on a sand pony. Sometimes the first anyone knew of a wreck was a pitiful cry from a sailor crawling along the beach.
Filene snorted spitefully. "Alriddy there was wood on the beach. Must 'ave been deep in ballast when she hit the bar."
The men called ships, sky, tide, sea, fish, and sun "she." They were all female. Unpredictable, the men said. And mainlanders couldn't understand why the Bankers said some other things.
was "fouled up" and
was "ruined." The Bankers did not know, either, but were told that people in northern England had talked that way long ago. Some British professor came out and listened and said it was from Devon, wherever that was. The Bankers shrugged.
"Rain hid her from you all day?" Ben asked, careful not to antagonize Filene but still curious.
Filene nodded bleakly and Ben began to feel the keeper's rage; perhaps his guilt for not having sent a patrol out earlier. The sea had insulted him once again; had spit in his eye. That was not a healthy thing to do to Filene Midgett.
Ben knew Filene hadn't lost many lives when a ship got this close. He'd gone out in any weather under oars, six men pulling; him steering, no matter the water, to bring them in. Ben had seen the boats go out, climbing the breakers almost straight up, Filene hunched and braced in the stem over the steering oar; damning the sea without ever once cussing. He was a very religious man.
Ben knew he could lay a Lyle gunshot across a ship for a breeches buoy rig in almost total darkness; do it in less than five minutes once his gun was set. He'd been decorated, as had John O'Neal, for saving lives. Both were gold medal men, winners of the highest Lifesaving Service award.
But this ship, Ben was certain, had come apart like a box of spilled matches when it hit the bar in sheeting rain.
over the wind and thunder of water.
Then Jabez Tillett, who was as stringy as the wreck pole and had an Adam's apple like a rock in midchannel, no chin at all, staggered toward them with a sodden limp bundle on his back He lowered it to the sand near Filene's boots. The man's mouth was open and his lifeless eyes were filled with terror as if he'd seen something he couldn't believe.
Ben glanced again. The body was broken and sand-dredged, almost stripped of clothing. The legs were at crazy angles. He turned his head. He didn't exactly like looking at dead people. He'd only seen three or four in his lifetime. This man would join the others in walking the beach.