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Under the Star-Spangled Banner By F. S. Brereton Characters: 14001

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

An uncouth object Hal looked as he left his bunk and sought something with which to quench his thirst.

He went to a filter which was kept near the stairway leading to the saloon. It was full, and he took a long and satisfying drink. That done, he returned to the alleyway, where he stopped and looked out.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "The sea is falling, and there is scarcely any wind. That gives the Mohican a better chance. But Mr. Broom will be wanting me."

He looked about, and seeing the nozzle of a hydrant at hand, gave it a turn by means of the key. Whipping his shirt off, he bent beneath the spouting water which gushed out, and thoroughly soused himself. "That's better," he said, catching a glimpse of himself in the glass. "I look more like a Christian again. Now for Masters."

He went to the engineer's cabin and knocked.

"Come in," someone cried.

Hal entered, to find the ship's doctor engaged in dressing Masters' wounds.

"Well, what now, my lad?" asked the doctor. "More casualties? If so, I shall be overwhelmed."

"It's nothing, sir," Hal answered. "I came to inquire after my friend. How is he? I left him here yesterday morning, with a big cut across his head, and haven't been able to come near him since."

"And we only discovered him a matter of half an hour ago. He has been lying here ever since. He has a crack across the top of his head that would kill the average nigger; but, thanks to an extraordinarily thick skull, he's none the worse."

Hal looked on for a few moments, then he left the cabin and climbed down to the engine-room. How changed the place was since the day he first descended! Then all was bustle, and after the ship had left port, the noise, the whir of machinery had been unending. That was barely twenty hours ago, and now all was still. The wreck of a portion of the fine engines was piled against the side, wound round with innumerable lengths of cable. Then, at the end of it all, a mass of blanket and bedding bulged into the room, looking peculiarly out of place. As Hal glanced at the rent which had been plugged during the night, a mass of water struck the ship on that side, and drove in the caulk, a flood of water flowing in immediately.

"That's scarcely safe," thought Hal. "I had better find the 'third,' and tell him about it."

But there was no need to do so, for at this moment Mr. Broom appeared from behind part of the machinery.

"There's more work for us," he said wearily. "I've had my eye on that rent all night, and the plug has gone at last. How are you, youngster?"

"Fit and well," Hal answered. "But you look worn out, sir. Why not turn in? Leave this job to me. I'll get the same hands as I had before, and we'll soon see to it."

"You can't work without something to keep you going," the "third" replied. "Besides, I don't know that I am willing to have the job done by someone else. The poor old chief is dead, and the 'second' was knocked out of time by the first smash, so I'm in sole charge. I want a sleep, I own, but I'm not done yet. You cut up now, and perhaps when you return I'll take a turn at the breakfast table."

"But I'm as fresh as a lark," exclaimed Hal, "whereas you are completely done up. Give me directions what to do, and then turn in and have a sleep. There will be heaps to get in order when you awake, and as you are the only engineer officer left on the active list, you ought to take care of yourself."

"You're right there, lad," the "third" replied, sitting down suddenly upon a step of the ladder, and turning a deathly gray, his pallor showing through the thick layer of grime which covered his face. "I'm done, and need a good rest to put me right. I'll tell you how we'll manage it. You slip up and get a bite and a cup of tea; then you can relieve me. You know what I want done. Plug this rent, and brace the wrecked machinery still more. Then, if another gale springs upon us, we shall feel secure."

"Very well, sir; I'll get my breakfast and relieve you," said Hal briskly. He hastened in search of breakfast. The mess-room was empty, and when Hal looked into the cabin occupied by the engineer officers, he found that it had been converted into a hospital, in which the wounded were being treated.

"Everything seems to be disorganized," he said. "I'll go to the pantry and see what the stewards can do."

He passed through the alleyway, and mounted the narrow stairs.

"Can I have some breakfast?" he asked of one of the stewards, who happened to be there.

"Breakfast! Of course you can," was the hearty answer. "You fellows down below have worked like bricks, and deserve something good.

"Did you ever see such a smash?" he proceeded, pointing to the shelves of the pantry. "Everything is upside down, and more than half the crockery has been shattered."

While speaking to Hal the steward had been plying a tin-opener, and at this moment turned out a big tongue on to a plate. He cut off a slice, and making a sandwich, handed it to Hal. Then a bowl of tea was put in his hand, and Hal was on the point of retiring when Mr. Brindle appeared.

"My young friend the greaser, I think," he exclaimed. "Ah, how are matters down below this morning? I assure you that I and my comrades were so fatigued by the healthy exercise you gave us, that we retired immediately the trimming was completed, and have slept like so many logs ever since. But, thank Heaven, all looks well to-day, and hope is high in everyone's heart."

"Yes, all is well," Hal responded; "but there is still work to be done."

"That sounds as though another call might be made for volunteers," said Mr. Brindle. "Come, now, is that not the case?"

"That is what I propose to do, Mr. Brindle. You see, the engine-room is practically deserted. But for a few stokers who keep steam in two of the boilers, and the third engineer, the place is quite empty. Mr. Broom is done up, and when I return will place me in charge, and go to his bunk. As soon as he has gone, I propose to replug the rent."

"Then you will most certainly want us," said Mr. Brindle. "Come in here, lad, and talk the matter over. No; you must not refuse. We are all equals and comrades on this ship, and no one could object to your taking a meal in the saloon, particularly at this time. Now, come along in, and take your breakfast comfortably."

It was useless to attempt to refuse compliance with Mr. Brindle's request simply on the ground that he was only a greaser in the engine-room. In ordinary circumstances, the presence of such a person in the saloon would have led to a scene, and the fact would have been reported to the captain. But things were changed now. The Mohican was little better than a wreck, her crew diminished, and those who were left were incapable of carrying on the work. The call for volunteers had at once placed regular hands and passengers on a common footing. Many of them had heard Mr. Brindle speaking to Hal, and they at once supported his request.

"You must come in, young sir," one of them cried. "Come along, or you will be offending everyone in the saloon."

Hal blushed, grasped the bowl of tea firmly, and tucking the roll of tongue and bread beneath one arm, made his way to a seat.

The passengers gathered round him and plied him with eager questions.

"Now, what is wanted?" asked one of them, with a laugh.

"The lives of all on board depend upon our exertions," Hal answered. "With good weather we need not fear, but if the gale blows up again, the Mohican may very easily go to the bottom. That rent has opened again, and must be closed. Will anyone help me do it?"

He looked round at the group of passengers, and was rewarded with an emphatic nod from each.

"We shall all be there," said Mr. Brindle. "And when the rent is patched, what follows?"

"The cylinder covers should be taken off and the piston-rods and cranks removed. I fancy I know enough about engines to instruct you, and if not, we must wait till to-morrow."

"Perhaps I could help you there," remarked Mr. Brindle. "On the plantations in Cuba a trained engineer is a rarity. As a consequence, one becomes something of an expert one's self. Many a time I have had to effect some minor repair, so that I have picked up some knowledge of machinery. Now, when shall we come?"

"As soon after breakfast as possible, and I would suggest that you bring more blankets."

"Very well, Marchant. We'll divide into two parties as before, and you can expect the first in a quarter of an hour."

Hal thanked him, and left the saloon. Then he went for'ard, and looked up the carpenter.

"We want some planks, a few hammers, and a saw down in the engine-room," he said. "Can you let us have them, Chipps?"

"You can take what you can find," was the answer. "There, the store is under the poop. Take a look round and help yourself."

Hal went into the space set apart for carpenter's stores, and dragged out two long planks. These he carried to the engine-room. Then he made other trips, bringing hammers, nails, a roll of canvas, a saw, and many useful things.

"Now for Mr. Broom," he said. "I'll get down and free the poor fellow, for he looked worn out with hard work and want of sleep."

Glad of the relief, Mr. Broom climbed the ladder, swaying from side to side, and looking as if he were incapable of controlling his limbs. But he was not the one to give in easily. He reached the top with an effort, went to the cabin, and, tumbling upon a bunk, fell into a deep slumber.

A few minutes later the first batch of passengers appeared, and a consultation was held.

"How are you going to do it, lad?" asked Mr. Brindle, looking at the rent in the vessel's side, and at the mass of blankets displaced by the sea. "It seems to me that something stronger is wanted-something behind the bedding, to force it into the opening and keep it in position."

"I thought of that," said Hal, "and I've got planks from the carpenter. I suggest that we cut lengths, which will go from end to end of the rent. Then back them with cross-pieces. If nailed together in that position, we shall have a fairly solid board, which can be pressed against the bedding and wedged in place."

"That's about as good a way as any," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "But I've one idea. Get your canvas soaked with tar, and stretch it over the blankets. When the edges are squeezed into the rent they will keep the water out. Undoubtedly our first job is to get the plugging done. Now, young sir, put us at it."

It was work which was urgently needed; and the passengers, looking very business-like in their shirt-sleeves, set to at it so heartily that the rent was safely filled by afternoon.

"Now we'll tackle the cylinders and cranks," said Hal. "It has to be done, and better now than later on."

The work was tackled willingly, and when the "third" descended to the engine-room he found the rent safely plugged, the wreck of the engines securely braced, and the cylinder covers and all movable parts taken away, and made fast elsewhere.

He stopped abruptly at the bottom of the ladder, and fell back a pace in astonishment.

"Why, what's this?" he cried, as though he could not believe his senses. "The hole plugged as tight as a barrel, the wreck stayed up with yards of cable, and all the movable parts unshipped and set aside. Here, what's been happening? Have we fallen in with another ship, and borrowed a crew of engine hands?"

"It means that we carried out your orders, sir," said Hal. "You were dead tired, and left the engine-room to me. Our friends, the passengers, came to our aid again, and this is their handiwork."

"Yes, that is so, and glad have we been to help," Mr. Brindle interposed. "But allow me to tell you, Mr. Broom, though we have carried out your orders, it was under the direction of this lad. It seems extraordinary that he, who never saw the machinery of a big ocean-going steamer until a week ago, should so soon be placed in a position of responsibility. Few would have been so level-headed. The lad has won our admiration, for he is as free from conceit as he is full of resolution. He will get on in the world."

"So he will," the "third" responded. "The lad's got grit, sir-the stuff that won't give way whatever the danger. Who stopped the engines, and nearly got knocked into so much pulp? Why, this kid. I'm not going to say one word about the other part, though we don't forget in a hurry that it was he who stuck like blazes to the trimming. And now he just goes and packs me off to my bunk, and then coolly tidies the whole place up, and there isn't anything more to be done! Why, I might just as well have had my sleep out!"

"Ha, ha, ha! So you might," laughed Mr. Brindle. "But come along to the saloon. We are all in need of a meal."

"By George, we are!" Mr. Broom replied. "Come, Marchant; we'll defer the discussion of your good works till later. But when the time comes for you to seek for a job on the other side, you've one here who is your friend, and who will gladly help you."

"And here is another," exclaimed Mr. Brindle. "But to dinner now."

Early next day passengers and crew ascended to the deck, for the time had come to commit to the deep the bodies of those who had been killed.

It was a sad group that stood upon the planks, hats reverently in hand, and peered into the sea, soon to become the grave of those unfortunate comrades stretched still and motionless at their feet. Swathed in blankets, with fire-bars to bear them down to their last resting-place, the chief engineer and two hands lay awaiting the last rites at the hands of their friends. Very earnestly, and as if he would emphasize every word, the captain read the burial service, while the ship's bell tolled mournfully. Then, at a sign from the quartermaster, the grating upon which the bodies lay was tipped by two of the hands, and the three forms slipped from beneath the pall, and disappeared forever.

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