Authors: Theodore Taylor
"I showed her the
took her to the store at Kinnakeet, an' got her partway up the lighthouse steps."
"Lord above," Rachel said angrily, "you've got no more sense o' feelin' than your papa had."
That always made Ben fume. "Don't say anything about him."
"I'll say he was about as tender as dried oak, and you're the same. Makin' her walk those steps; takin' her by Heron Shoal."
Ben went out, slamming the door, feeling a rage. He hadn't meant to upset the girl.
EE HAD A
bad dream after midnight. The screams ripped the quiet and they rushed into the room. Ben stood sleepily in the doorway while his mother calmed her down.
Then Rachel turned. "Ben, go back to sleep. She's wet the bed. I'll change her an' settle her on the couch."
Ben shook his head in disgust. Someone that age wetting the bed. Worse, it was his own bed. He returned into his mother's room and slipped under the covers. He could hear his mother talking softly to the girl and pulled the pillow over his head, sighing deeply.
The morning broke cold and windy but clear. Tufts of frost around the grass clumps in the yard began to melt as the sun mounted.
Ben hardly looked at Teetoncey. There was no reason in the world why she couldn't get up and go to the outhouse like everyone else. He got dressed and hauled in the day's supply of wood.
After breakfast, while Tee was sitting by the stove in her nightgown, staring at the red embers lying inside the bottom vent, stroking Boo Dog's head absentmindedly, Rachel said, "Ben, haul that mattress outside an' throw it over the sawhorses to air."
That was the everlasting end. Ben looked over at Tee. "Why can't she do it? She wet it."
Rachel whirled around, white lines spreading away from her lips. "I'll do it, Ben," she said savagely. "I don't need your help. Why don't you jus' get outta here. Go anywhere you'd like. Jus' stay away."
Ben stared at her a moment, a sudden flare of anger and resentment rising in him. If that's the way she wanted it, fine. He strode past Tee to get his heavy coat, boots, and bob-cap.
At the door, he said, "C'mon, Boo."
The big dog angled his eyes up without even raising his head from between his paws. They said, Don't be silly. The girl was still rubbing along his back.
The dog ignored him and closed his eyes again.
Ben slammed the door and went into the yard. He stopped, shaking with rage, wondering what to do. He couldn't see the tackie around and had no particular desire to ride him anyway. He thought about going back in and getting Reuben's gun to shoot some ducks. But that didn't appeal to him, either.
Finally, he went mumbling north to the Odens.
Kilbie was out by the side of the house, splitting wood. The first thing he said was, "Saw you out with that girl yestiddy. You in love with her?"
Ben laughed. "How can you be in love with a vegetable? That's what Doc Meekins called her. That's what she is. I'd just as soon love a carrot."
"I saw you two cuttin across toward the beach on the cart. You looked high 'n' mighty."
"You know what she did last night, Kilbie?"
Kilbie shook his head. He had the pimple salve on.
"Wet the bed. My bed. Whew."
"I wish I was."
"Why don't you get rid of her?"
Ben laughed sourly. "I ain't the one's in love with her. Mama is."
Kilbie said, "Somebody'll come from England an' fetch her back, sooner or later."
"Sooner the better. You wanna go for a sail?"
Kilbie looked out across the sound. "That's a mean wind, Ben." Whitecaps were spread all the way to the mainland.
Kilbie looked north. "I don't think so. There's an eyebrow on those low clouds." They had begun to blossom within the last hour.
"She'll come down to a whisper by noon."
Kilbie shook his head.
The more Ben thought about it, the more it appealed to him. Out there, away from the house, away from his mother and Teetoncey, he could clear the cobwebs from his head. He could think about going on up to Norfolk and finding a ship. Reuben had gotten a berth just by asking around at the chandlers.
"See you bye 'n' bye," said Ben, and walked south again, swinging well out to the middle of the island to avoid his house. He spotted Fid munching down in the marsh but kept going until he reached the thicket where
Me and the John O'Neal
He inspected the seams. There'd been enough rain the last two months to keep it somewhat damp. The thicket branches shaded it from the sun so it hadn't dried out too much. Besides, he'd done a careful caulking job in September.
Turning the boat over, he pulled the sails from under the thwarts and shook them out; then dragged the boat down to water's edge. He looked out across the sound. The whitecaps were chopping up but the breeze seemed steady. He liked it that way. The best sails he'd had was when the water was cresting white; when the wind would pocket and heel the boat over, driving it to let a stream of bubbles boil in the wake.
A few times he'd shouted for the wind to blow harder, feeling the spray off the gunwales in his face; yelling as
Me and the John O'Neal
bounced across the sound, bow pounding and strumming as it hit the short-spanned waves.
He stepped the mast and rigged the jib, then snapped on the mainsail. It wasn't rigged exactly like the larger Creef boats. Ben had made his own design. But it cruised along, proved steady and handled nicely.
Ben pushed her on into the water, jumped aboard, and then poled away from shore with an oar. The water was shallow for three or four hundred feet. There was a lee at the thicket, the land curving in. He drifted for a hundred yards while he pulled the jib up, and tied it off. It flapped harmlessly. Quickly, he hauled the main up; grabbed the sheet rope and then jumped back for the tiller as the wind caught the sail. The boat began to drive forward and Ben yelled with joy as it shot out of the lee.
It scudded into the whitecaps, heeling over sharply, and Ben moved the sand ballast bag with his foot, knowing instantly he could just as well do without the jib. There was more than enough wind for the main, and he felt a slight ticking in his stomach. But he couldn't go forward to lower it. She'd come around and flip over if he let go the tiller.
So he decided to run before the wind and wait until it slackened off. He had the sheet rope, which controlled the mainsail, in his right hand and steered with his left.
Me and the John O'Neal
flashed south down the wide Pamlico and Ben settled back, not even minding the cold spray that stabbed his face, hanging in the air a few seconds from the overtaking wind.
He had in mind running down to about opposite Buxton Woods, then tacking back, hugging the east shore if the wind was still setting to south. He'd let the boat run free, keeping just inside the channel where the surface wasn't quite as rough as on the shallows. It would be an allday trip.
Every time he was out he realized more and more what his papa and Guthrie had found on the water. It was an escape from all the harass-ments of land. There was no one to say what to do and how to do it. Just the keening of the wind and the swish of the prow.
Ben had not looked astern for a long time and did not know that the earlier eyebrow of storm clouds had advanced until the sun suddenly vanished. He turned and saw them. They were rolling down on the Banks in a fat, gray fold; full of wind.
He studied them and the ticking came again into his stomach. He looked off to port and saw the Kinnakeets. He hauled up a bit on the sheet rope and laid pressure on the tiller, beginning to angle toward shore. He could dock over there and walk on home; come back in a day or two when the wind was back to its prevail. He figured he was about five miles offshore.
The first gusts of the approaching storm slashed across the sound a few minutes later and Ben felt his heart begin to pound. Then a gust hit like a giant fist. He could not let her to the wind quick enough, nor let the sheet rope fly in time.
Me and the John O'Neal,
carrying too much canvas, flipped over, throwing Ben into the icy water. His breath was snatched away as he went under.
He came up beneath the sail, which was spread out on the chop, pushing it up with his head; gasping; feeling as if his lungs were on fire.
He stayed still a second and then felt his way along the mast up to the boat. It was on its side. Grasping the gunwale, he kicked around it and then pulled himself half out of the water, clinging to the overturned hull.
Panting, already feeling he was starting to freeze, he knew he couldn't right; bail her out. Summer, he could have. But his hands were already going numb. The wind felt like a knife on his back and shoulders. He kicked his boots loose to let them fill and sink. Now, the sharp cold of the water was numbing his feet.
He could only think,
This is what happened to Guthrie.
He knew he could not hold on much longer.
Twenty minutes later, Hardie Miller, of Kinnakeet, running before the wind to get to dock and safety, spotted the overturned boat and hauled around in his big Creefer, its sails wisely reefed.
He came up smartly to the
Me and the John O'Neal,
saw Ben clinging to the skag, and yelled, "What the hell you doin' out this Mornin'?"
While his two crewmen handled the Creefer, Hardie threw a stiff line over Ben's head. It hit cruelly. "Hang on to it," Hardie yelled, and Ben felt himself being yanked away from the hull.
There were hands under his armpits suddenly and then he felt himself flopping to the floor boards like a mullet. He lay there gasping; numbed.
"Git on into that shelter," Miller ordered harshly, having no use for boat stupidity. Ben crawled forward, almost automatically.
On his hands and knees, pooling water, he began shaking; he could hear his own teeth clattering. Then Hardie stooped in and tossed a blanket to him. "You have to be crazy, Ben O'Neal," he said.
Ben didn't answer back. He couldn't.
A half hour later, with the righted
Me and the John O'Neal
towing behind, the Creefer docked at Kinnakeet.
Ben was still shaking, as much from fright as from cold when Hardie Miller ducked back in and yelled, "Now, git your lil' ass on up to that store an' dry off. Then why don't you take an ax an' chop that boat up till you learn how to sail."
Ben nodded and crawled weakly out of the shelter cabin; then rattled and shook all the way up the dock. He heard Hardie Miller shout after him. "You git my blanket back soon's it's dry."
Some of the same old men were sitting around the stove when he came in. One cackled. "You go for a swim today, Ben?"
Ben closed his ears and stood by the stove, shivering.
Mrs. Gillikin came out from behind the counter. She said, "Ben, strip your clothes on off. I'll hang 'em to dry."
He felt humiliated. Nothing had gone right since that castaway girl come up out of the sea.
At about two o'clock, Kilbie Oden rode up to the O'Neal house and knocked on the door. Rachel answered.
"Mis' O'Neal, Ben turned over in the sound. But he's all right. Hardie Miller got him out. I tol' him this Mornin' that wind was too mean."
"Where is he now?"
"Kinnakeet store. Dryin' off. Prochorus called Filene an' I saw Jabez out on the trail a while back. Jabez said to tell you that Ben's all right."
For a moment, Rachel felt vast relief, a weakness over her whole body; then it turned to blazing anger as Kilbie rode away.
HE SQUALL PASSED
over the Banks, mostly gusts of twenty to thirty knots, and a few bursts of rain. It cleared again by late afternoon and just before sundown, Ben turned up the lane and walked toward the house. He'd borrowed shoes in Kinnakeet to make the walk home. He didn't relish entering. It was certain that some loose mouth had told his mother. That's all anyone ever did out there. Gossip.
He took a breath and went on in.
Rachel came out of the kitchen. He didn't really know what to expect. He saw Tee sitting on his bed looking at one of the Chicago catalogs.
"I hope you got your good taste today," his mother said. "I see you lost your boots."
Yep, she knew.
"I'll tell you one thing, Ben O'Neal. I want you to bring that boat to our dock an' keep it there. You're gonna start mindin' me."
He was about to say, "What boat?"
"I've known you've had one for months. Least you could do is be honest."
"Gust hit me. I was carryin' too much canvas." That was the truth. Next time he'd know better.
Rachel shook her head, wanting to be gentle with him yet feeling he must be made to understand that water was a killer. She sighed. "Anybody but a pure fool wouldn't have taken a small boat today 'less they had to."
"I got picked up."
Rachel nodded. "By the grace o' God." Then she said tiredly, "Ben, I'm plenty full o' death and destruction. Now, you don't know how to sail an' until you learn, I want that boat tied up where I can see it. You may think you're John O'Neal, but you're not."
Rachel started back for the kitchen, wishing that Reuben was around to talk good sense about wind and water.
Ben said after her, sullenly, "I wish Papa was alive."
Rachel stopped, anger welling back. "So do I. Maybe he'd tell you he'd learned his lesson. The hard way."
"He'd of taken a boat out today."
Rachel's eyes hardened. The boy had to know sometime. She'd thought about telling him long before but the right opportunity had never come up. More than that, she had not wanted to destroy his hero worship. Better it be destroyed, though, than have Ben six fathoms under.
"Let's go in the kitchen, so that child won't hear us. No use gettin' her upset, too."
Ben followed her in, bracing himself. He stood by the sink He just wanted to get it over, whatever it would be. He felt exhausted.
"Now, I want to tell you somethin' that no keeper or surfman here will tell you about your papa. They've got their special honor. All they want to talk about is heroes. Never the fools."