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   Chapter 3 THE WRECK.

The Wreckers of Sable Island By J. Macdonald Oxley Characters: 8423

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Major Maunsell gave a great gasp of relief when the brig righted.

"Keep tight hold of your rope, Eric," he cried encouragingly. "Please God, we may reach shore alive yet."

Drenched to the skin and shivering with cold, Eric held tightly on to the rope with his right hand and to Prince's collar with his left. Prince had crouched close to the foot of the mast, and the waves swept by him as though he had been carved in stone.

"All right, sir," Eric replied, as bravely as he could. "It's pretty hard work, but I'll not let go."

Rearing and plunging amid the froth and foam, the Francis charged at the second bar, struck full upon it with a force that would have crushed in the bow of a less sturdy craft, hung there for a few minutes while the breakers, as if greedy for their prey, swept exultantly over her, and then, responding to the impulse of another towering wave, leaped over the bar into the deeper water beyond.

But she could not stand much more of such buffeting, for she was fast becoming a mere hulk. Both masts had gone by the board at the last shock, and poor little Eric certainly would have gone overboard with the main-mast but for his prompt rescue by the major from the entangling rigging.

"You had a narrow escape that time, Eric," said the major, as he dragged the boy round to the other side of the mast, where he was in less danger.

The passage over the bars having thus been effected, the few who were still left on board the Francis began to cherish hopes of yet reaching the shore alive.

Between the bars and the main body of the island was a heavy cross-sea, in which the brig pitched and tossed like a bit of cork. Somewhere beyond this wild confusion of waters was the surf which broke upon the beach itself, and in that surf the final struggle would take place. Whether or not a single one of the soaked, shivering beings clinging to the deck would survive it, God alone knew. The chances of their escape were as one in a thousand-and yet they hoped.

There were not many left now. Captain Sterling was gone, and Lieutenants Mercer and Sutton. Besides the major and Eric, only Lieutenants Roebuck and Moore of the cabin passengers were still to be seen. Of the soldiers and crew, almost all had been swept away; but Captain Reefwell still held to his post upon the quarter-deck by keeping tight hold to a belaying-pin.

The distance between the bars and the beach was soon crossed, and the long line of foaming billows became distinct through the driving mist.

"Don't lose your grip on Prince, my boy," called the major to Eric. "We'll strike in a second, and then-"

But before he could finish the sentence the ship struck the beach with fearful force, and was instantly buried under a vast mountain of water that hurled itself upon her as though it had long been waiting for the chance to destroy her. When the billow had spent its force, the decks were clear. Not a human form was visible where a moment before more than a score of men had been clinging for dear life. Hissing and seething like things of life, and sending their spray and spume high into the mist-laden air, the merciless breakers bore their victims off to cast them contemptuously upon the beach. Then, ere they could scramble ashore, they would be caught up again and carried off by the recoil of the wave, to be once more dashed back as though they were the playthings of the water.

The major and Eric were separated in the wild confusion; but Eric was not parted from Prince. About his brawny neck the mastiff wore a stout leathern collar, and to this Eric clung with a grip that not even the awful violence of the breakers could unloose. Rather did it make his sturdy fingers but close the tighter upon the leathern band.

Into the boiling flood the boy and dog were plunged together, and bravely they battled to make the shore. The struggle would be a tremendous one for them, and the issue only too doubtful. The slope of the beach was very gradual, and there was a long distance between where the brig struck and the dry land. Wholly blinded and half-choked by the driving spray, Eric could do nothing to direct his course. But he could have had no better pilot tha

n the great dog, whose unerring instinct pointed him straight to the shore.

How long they struggled with the surf Eric could not tell. But his strength had failed, and his senses were fast leaving him, when his feet touched something firmer than tossing waves, and presently he and Prince were lifted up, and then hurled violently upon the sand. Had he been alone, the recoil of the wave would certainly have carried him back again into the surge; but the dog dug his big paws into the soft beach, and forced his way up, dragging his master with him.

Dizzy, bewildered, and faint, Eric staggered to his feet, looked about him in hope of finding the major near, and then, seeing nobody, fell forward upon the sand in a dead faint.

How long he lay unconscious upon the beach Eric had no idea; but when he at length came to himself, he found a big, bushy-bearded man bending over him with a half-pitying, half-puzzled look, while beside him, ready for a spring, was faithful Prince, regarding him with a look that said as plainly as words,-

"Attempt to do my master any harm and I will be at your throat."

But the big man seemed to have no evil intent. He had evidently been waiting for Eric to gain consciousness, and as soon as the boy opened his eyes, said in a gruff but not unkind voice,--

"So you're not dead after all, my hearty. More's the pity, maybe. Old Evil-Eye'll be wanting to make a clean job of it, as usual."

Eric did not at all take in the meaning of the stranger's words; his senses had not yet fully returned. He felt a terrible pain in his head and a distressing nausea, and when he tried to get upon his feet he found the effort too much for him. He fell back with a cry of pain that made the affectionate mastiff run up to him and gently lick his face, as though to say,-

"What's the matter, dear master? Can I do anything for you?"

The man then seemed, for the first time, to take notice of the dog, and putting forth a huge, horny hand, he patted him warily, muttering under his beard,-

"Sink me straight, but it's a fine beast. I'll have him for my share, if I have to take the boy along with him."

Perceiving by some subtle instinct the policy of being civil, Prince permitted himself to be patted by the stranger, and then lay down again beside him in a manner that betokened, "When wanted, I'm ready."

Eric was eager to hear about Major Maunsell and the others who had been on board the Francis. Were it not for his weakness he would be running up and down the beach in search of them. But the terrible struggle with the surf, following upon the long exposure to the storm, had completely exhausted him, and he was sorely bruised besides. Turning his face up to the strange man, who seemed to have nothing further to say on his own account, he asked him anxiously,-

"Where's Major Maunsell? Is he all right?"

Instead of answering, the man looked away from Eric, and there was an expression on his face that somehow sent a chill of dread to the boy's heart.

"Please tell me what has happened. Oh, take me to him, won't you? He's looking after me, you know," he pleaded earnestly, the tears beginning to well from his eyes.

Still the big man kept silence. Then as Eric pressed him with entreaty, he suddenly wheeled about and spoke in gruffer tones than he had so far used,-

"You'd best be still and keep quiet. You'll never see Major Maunsell, as you call him, or any of the rest of them again, and you might just as well know it first as last."

At these dreadful words Eric raised himself by a great effort to a sitting posture, gazed into the man's face as though hoping to find some sign of his not being in earnest, and then with a cry of frantic grief flung himself back and buried his face in his hands, while his whole frame shook with the violence of his sobbing.

The man stood watching him in silence, although his face, hard and stern as it was, gave evidence of his being moved to sympathy with the boy. He seemed to be thinking deeply, and to be in much doubt as to what he should do. He was just about to stoop down and lift Eric up, when a harsh, grating voice called out,-

"Hallo, Ben! What have you got there?"

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