Authors: Theodore Taylor
Outside, there was still some force in the wind. It gusted now and then unexpectedly, as if it wanted to remind everyone that it would be back again; rattling the house to make its point. Sometimes Ben wasn't sure that the wind and the sea weren't alive; could think.
The only other sound was the low seething of the stove, now red-hot. Ben couldn't stand the silence. "When'll she come aroun'?"
"When she gets good 'n ready. Then I'll slip a dose of jalap an' calomel down her."
That would make her stand on end, he thought. That
powder had to be the most rotten medicine on earth. Reuben had brought it home a long time ago. Mixed with calomel and molasses, it was worse than being sick. Worse than having the flu. It brought steady and direct trips to the outhouse.
"Pneumonia's what we got to guard against now," Rachel said.
She knew her herb medicines.
she called them. The recipes were passed back and forth all over the islands, according to what the ailment was. One was tacked up on the kitchen wall, up from an old lady in Buxton Woods.
White moss from lighthouse graveyard
Polybody wine leaf, green and prettysome when picked on new moon
Boil to a strength, add milk
Boil to a pint.
It would make a pint of
and surely this girl would have her taste of it, Ben thought.
The hand was beginning to warm a bit although it still felt limp as fresh hog gut. He began to wish she'd do something. Cry or yell. Even shiver.
"I wonder where she came from?" He couldn't help but ask.
After a long while, Rachel answered. "We may know in the momin'. Long's they pick up enough pieces o' that wreck."
"She looks American."
There was a sigh from the end of the bed. "Ben, slip your hand out neatly. Then go in the kitchen an' pick up that dress. Look at the collar. See if there's a label."
He brought it back out to the living room and held it beneath the lamp glow. The stitching was faded but readable. "Durrant. 116 New Bond Street, London. That's in England!"
Rachel's eyebrows raised. "I declare. There. Now, you know that much."
"She's British," Ben said, with some awe. He couldn't ever remember seeing a British girl, much less touching one.
"Not necessarily. That's where the dress come from. Mebbe she didn't. Mebbe she come from New York or Boston. Those clothes look rich, anyway."
Ben thought about the shoe and went back for it. He brushed sand out of the inside. The word
appeared and he repeated it. "Mebbe that's her name?"
Rachel said, "I've never heerd o' people puttin' their names in their own shoes."
He examined the girl again. She did look kind of foreign now, no matter what his mother had said.
Returning to the bed, he rubbed the right hand for a long time and then rubbed the left hand. It didn't seem too odd now. Besides, she wasn't awake to know what he was doing. It was just that he'd never been around girls too much. The Scarboroughs, who lived about an eighth of a mile north, in another hammock, had a daughter named Lucy, but he hadn't had much to do with her. Willy Ann Gillikin was up three houses, a mile away, but he hadn't had much to do with her, either.
Soon, he fell asleep due to the high heat in the room and his mother shook him and told him to go to bed. He took another look at the small white face, got a blanket, and sprawled out on the couch, becoming aware he hadn't even taken his seaboots off. He kicked them free and then pulled the blanket up.
He watched the girl until he drifted off, thinking many things; feeling content with himself. He hadn't stopped once to rest on the way from the beach; he'd gone at a trot with her even when his lungs started to knife. He'd saved a life. Well, not exactly. Yet. But...
He did not awaken until about two o'clock in the morning when there was a pounding at the door. Rachel left the bedside to answer it. He sat up.
Mark Jennette was in the doorway, looking very tired. His eyes were bloodshot, his red hair mussed up after taking the sou'wester off. His mustache was peppered with dry salt. The surfmen were still out on the beach searching, Ben was certain.
"Girl still alive, Mis' O'Neal?" Mark asked.
"She's still livin'."
"Cap'n said for you to keep 'er that way."
Rachel's back stiffened. It sounded like a threat. "You tell Filene Midgett I'm doin' ever blessed thing I can for her. You tell him to come over here hisself if he can do better."
The redheaded surfman turned meek. "Yessum."
Then he looked past Rachel's shoulder to the form on the bed. Satisfied, he nodded and stepped back to the sand.
"Anybody else live?" Rachel asked.
Ben could barely hear Mark's answer. "No, ma'am."
As the door closed Ben looked across the room to the blurred white patch in the shadows. Now he knew that the sea had taken everyone except this "teetoncey" girl.
"Go back to sleep, Ben," Rachel said softly.
He watched as she sat down in the chair again. He saw that the Bible was on the bed beside the girl and made a guess that his mother had read it for quite a while before placing it against the girl's shoulder.
He listened as she began to hum a hymn. He also noticed there was a look on her face that he'd never seen before. He thought about it a moment. She'd always wanted a girl. Now, she had one. Even temporarily.
He fell asleep studying her bony face.
About six, when it was still pitch outside, he heard his name being called, quietly but urgently. He got up and padded over.
The girl seemed to be awakening. Her mouth opened and she swallowed. Then her eyes opened weakly and closed. They opened again but didn't focus.
"You're safe, everythin's all right, child," Rachel said, speaking in not much more than a whisper, her fingers lightly stroking the girl's forehead.
Ben held his breath.
The girl shuddered, let out a tiny moan, and then the eyelids went down again and dosed tight.
Rachel sighed and shook her head. "When you get that weak, all's you want to do is sleep." She looked away. "Or die."
She got up from the straight chair. "I'll make some coffee an' put your breakfast on."
N THE OUTER ISLANDS,
the workday was from
can to can't.
"Can see to can't see." Dawn was called "the peep o' day" or "calm daylight."
It wasn't much past that, early sun putting gold edges on the broken eastern storm clouds, when Filene jogged up on his Banks pony, dwarfing it. Though small, the shaggy animals were strong. Eating saltwater grasses, pawing sand to dig a hole for freshwater, taking whatever shelter they could from the storms, the sand ponies,
managed to survive in the rugged land.
Supposedly, they came to the Banks in the 1700s when the
Prince of India
wrecked off Ocracoke. Some of her cargo of fine Arabian ponies, perhaps bound for Virginia plantations or up Edenton way, swam ashore along with two handlers. Now there were some rather dark complected people on the Banks named Wahab. Arab became
There was also someone named Pharaoh on that vessel. That became
Over the years, like everything else, the looks of the ponies had changed. Their coats had become thick and long; their hooves had spread to handle the mushy sand. They were ugly but useful.
On the stoop, Ben watched as Filene got off his tackie. He didn't need to drop far. His feet were only six or eight inches above the sand when he was aboard her, always bareback He never said
to her, just
Somehow she knew a sailor straddled her shag and she obeyed.
He nodded to Ben, then said, "Mornin', Rachel, girl still livin'?"
He looked bone- and muscle-weary. His boots were ringed with dried sand and his oilskins were ripped at the seam near the knees. Stubble was on his chin and cheeks. Summer or winter, his skin was always brick-colored.
"Mornin', Filene. Doin' as well as can be expected for all that maulin' she took You interested in some coffee? I made some fresh."
The burly keeper sighed and worked the muscles in his broad shoulders, then banged one boot against the other to knock sand off. "Sure am."
"Come on in," said Rachel. "She's beginning to come out o' it, I think Woke up jus' before daybreak, fluttered her eyes, shivered a lil', an' then went back to sleep. I don't even think she saw us, do you, Ben?"
Ben shook his head as Cap'n Midgett took his hat off and clumped up; then Ben followed his frame in.
She hadn't moved a fraction, he saw. But now that it was daylight her color seemed much better. The forehead bruise, though, was dusky as a grape.
Filene stood over the bed, peering down and Ben wondered what he was thinking. Maybe that she was the only survivor. If she didn't get well, there'd be none. Maybe he was thinking he could have done something to save them all. But who was to know that?
Sipping his coffee, he didn't speak for almost a minute and then said nothing about the girl. But he looked at her intently the whole time.
. We fetched some manifest papers out o' the wattah. The way the riggin' looks, pieces what has washed up so far, a bark. Spars an' shreds o' skysails, royals, topgallants all mommicked up..." He was speaking very low, still eyeing the girl. "Eleven bodies so far, an' we're keepin on lookin', Rachel. Crew from the Kinnakeets has joined us ... people from Chicky, Clarks..."
His voice trailed off.
It was always that way, Ben thought. Everyone turned out for a shipwreck. Everyone except women like Rachel O'Neal. The
look on her face said more than words: It was the same old story. Wreckage and bodies. The sea was a killer.
Filene then went on, almost reverently. "I think a man brung this one in, aimin' to get her past the surf. Might have been her daddy. Dressed smart, he was. Then there is a woman looks a lil' like her." He nodded down. "She was tangled up in some railin' when we found her. Busted like a rag doll. Might have been her mom."
"Breaks my heart," said Rachel, with anguish.
Ben listened to it all but kept a silence which was what Banks boys usually did around male elders. Especially around keepers; especially around Filene.
The keeper raised his tired eyes. They were marbled with red. "Well, I'll send a cart over sometime this afternoon to pick this one up."
"You'll do no such thing, Filene," Rachel stormed. "Are you a lunatic?"
The big man frowned. "Now, I have to take proper custiddy. Make out my report. Get this one to Doc Meekins or have him come to the station. I have my regulations, Rachel. You know the assistant inspector will come down. Always does, when there's loss o' life..."
"Are you plumb out o' your mind, Filene? This child's in shock. She's beggin' for pneumonia. You take her out in that cold air, you may lose her. Besides, you men at that station can't take care o' a girl. Who's to dress an' undress her? Carry her to the outhouse?"
Rachel was wild. Her eyes were full of fire. The skinny body was ready to do battle.
Ben watched in amazement as the keeper shifted on one foot and then another; rubbed his neck; raked the back of his hand with his whiskered chin. Why was it that the lifesavers could settle a man with a look yet backed away from spindly females?
"I hadn't rightly thought about that, Rachel. I best leave her with you. We'll wait a day or two."
"Or a week or two. Or a month," Rachel replied heatedly.
"All right. All right." His flat of palms came up in defense. "I'll go back to the beach. I'm obliged, Rachel."
He turned slightly. "I'm also obliged to you, Ben."
Ben felt the color rising from his throat into his cheeks. They were the first really decent words Filene Midgett had ever spoken to him.
The keeper went outside and swung a leg over the pony. He headed through the twisted live oak and myrtle to take the trail that led to the beach, his feet dangling; back stiff as a plank.
Ben glanced over at the girl. She was still motionless.
At about eight o'clock, Ben fed Fid, their own brown and dirty-white tackie, who usually roamed free but had come to the lean-to shelter for the storm. Then he decided to go to the beach. The girl was no more awake than she had been at midnight and he was restless. He had in mind trying to find the other shoe. Mosdy, he wanted to see what else had washed up.
From the stoop, Rachel watched him go. He walked with a slight roll, swinging his shoulders easily. So often, the walk reminded her of Ben's father.
She looked across the expanse of island wastes, north and south, taking deep breaths of the cold morning air to cut away the night's weariness. She glanced again at the retreating figure of her son, plodding steadily toward the beach.
It was in the blood, she knew. There was something mystical about these harsh islands and that sea out there that got deep into the muscle and brain of Banks men. It crept in when they were boys and except for rare occasion stayed like an incurable disease.
They'd sit around and swap the same old stories, telling and retelling the wrecks and rescues. Or talking wind and tide and fish and boats. Likely, Ben would do it, too.
She knew all the stories. She knew what was legend and outright lie and what was truth. For instance, it was a dedicated lie that the Bankers lured ships ashore to steal cargoes, strip the hulls, and murder the crews. Far back, most of the families had washed up from wrecks, and it would be the last thing on anybody's mind to cause a ship to ground. An unthinkable thing.
That treacherous story began a hundred or more years ago when it was claimed that land pirates walked ponies, with ship's running lights tied to their necks, along Jockey Ridge, to north, which was the highest sand dune on the Atlantic coast. It was claimed that if a ship was going south, the pony light would be green; north, the light would be red. The ponies made the lights bob, so the ship at sea would figure another ship was in closer and running safe. She'd haul over and pile up on the beach.