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   Chapter 21 ON BOARD THE CATSPAW

The Adventure Club Afloat By Ralph Henry Barbour Characters: 14672

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Steve communicated the project to those aboard the Follow Me which had now drawn up as near as she dared, and there followed a moment of blank amazement aboard the smaller boat. But discussion there was brief, and almost at once Harry Corwin raised his megaphone again and bellowed across:

"Go to it! What do you want us to do, Steve?"

"Nothing yet," was the answer. "We're going to board her first and see how she looks. If we take on the job we'll want your heaviest cable."

Harry signalled assent. By this time they were within a hundred yards of the derelict, and, with engines just moving, they tossed about on the long swells and had a better look at the schooner. She was about eighty feet long, with a beam of probably twenty-two, and displaced approximately a hundred tons. She was square-sterned and blunt-nosed, evidently built for capacity rather than speed. Her name, in gold letters on the bow, was quite distinct: Catspaw. Later, when they rounded her stern, they saw that her home port was Norfolk. Her cargo, or at least so much of it as was above deck, consisted of rough pine boards, and every available foot of space was occupied with it. The deck-house was all but hidden. The mainmast dragged by a tangle of ropes aft of the starboard beam and was acting as a sort of sea-anchor. For the rest, her lumber-piled deck was swept clean save for a splintered gaff that had become wedged in the boards. Her hull had been painted black, but not very recently, and a dingy white streak led along the side.

The two cruisers worked cautiously around to the leeward side of the Catspaw, the Adventurer's tender was dropped over and Steve, Joe and Han climbed in. Boarding in that sea was no child's work, for the big swells, which slammed into and sometimes over the schooner without much effect, tossed the dingey high in air. But by rowing hard at first and then taking advantage of the quieter water near the schooner they at last reached the old black hull in safety and, while Han managed the boat-hook, the other two scrambled aboard.

As they had suspected, the hulk was utterly deserted, and the fact that the forecastle and the captain's quarters were bare of anything of value and that the davits were empty indicated that the vessel had been abandoned in order. There was a good deal of water in her, but, as Steve pointed out, she wouldn't sink in a dozen years with that load of lumber to hold her up. "She wouldn't show much speed," he said when they had completed their investigations and were once more on deck, "and she'll tow about as easy as a lump of lead, but it's only thirty miles or so to Portsmouth, and even if we make only two miles an hour, and I guess we won't make much more, we can get her there tomorrow. That is, we can if our cables hold and the weather doesn't get nasty. I don't much like the looks of that same weather, though."

"Well, the barometer is rising," said Joe, "and that means-"

"Never mind your old barometer," laughed Steve. "Anyway, we'll have a go at this. If we have to give it up, all right, but we'd be silly not to try it. Come on and we'll get the cables aboard."

Two hours of hard work followed. With the cruisers tagging along nearby, suiting their pace to the slow drift of the schooner, the boys cut away the wreckage and rigged a jury-mast at the stump of the foremast. On this they spread a spare forestaysail which they dug from the sail locker. That it would aid greatly in the ship's progress Steve did not expect, but it would, he figured, make steering easier. Then the cruiser's heaviest anchor cables were taken aboard and made fast at the bow. A "prize crew" consisting of Joe, Han and Perry, from the Adventurer, and Wink and Bert, from the Follow Me, was placed in charge and enough food for two meals supplied them. The galley stove was still in running order, although it reeked of grease, and there was a fair supply of wood handy. Bert Alley, who had volunteered to do the cooking, objected to an inch or so of water that swashed around the floor, but the others pulled a pair of old rubber boots from a chest in the forecastle and he became reconciled. At noon they all returned to their respective cruisers and ate dinner, which, under the conditions, was no easy matter. They had to hold the dishes to the table and swallow their tea between plunges. Joe was inordinately proud of himself that day, for, in spite of the nasty motion-and there's nothing much more likely to induce sickness than a long ground-swell-he not only remained on duty but consumed his dinner with a fine appetite. It rained quite hard for a half-hour about noon and then ceased just in time for them to set off to the Catspaw again. It was decided that the Follow Me's tender was to be left with the schooner, in case of necessity, and Joe acknowledged that he felt a bit easier in his mind when it had been hoisted, not without difficulty, to one of the davits.

"It's all fine and dandy to say that this old tub can't sink," he confided to Wink Wheeler, "but-um-suppose she did sink? Then that little old dingey would be worth about a thousand dollars, I guess."

"It would be worth about ten cents," answered Wink pessimistically, "after we'd crowded five fellows into her in a sea like this!"

"Well, anyway, she's bigger than ours," said Joe. "And I saw a life belt downstairs-I mean below."

Joe and Wink were to take watches at the wheel, Perry and Han were to tend to the sail and keep a lookout and Bert was to cook. Steve issued his final directions at a little past one and then the two hawsers were stretched to the cruisers. Another squall of rain set in as the final preparations were made. A code of signals had been arranged between the three boats, a flag or piece of sailcloth to be used while the light held and a lantern after darkness. The "prize crew" cheered gaily as the others pulled away in the Adventurer's dingey and were cheered in return, and five minutes later the two cables tautened, the water foamed under the overhangs of the motor-boats and, reluctantly and even protestingly, the Catspaw obeyed the summons and started slowly to follow in the wakes of the distant cruisers.

Han and Perry, at the bow, waved caps triumphantly as the blunt nose of the schooner began to dig into the waves, and Joe, at the wheel, shouted back. The three-cornered sail was shifted to meet the following breeze and soon the Catspaw was wallowing along slowly but, as it seemed, in a determined way at the rate of, perhaps, three miles an hour. Perry, protected by a slicker, seated himself on the windlass and felt very important. Now and then someone aboard one of the cruisers waved a hand and Perry waved superbly back. Those cruisers were a long way off in case of danger, he reflected once, but he decided not to let his mind dwell on the fact.

Joe found that the wheel of the Catspaw required a good deal more attention than that of the Adventurer, and his arms were fairly tired by the time he yielded his place to the impatiently eager Wink. Steering the Catspaw with the sea almost up to her deck line was a good deal like steering a scow loaded with pig-iron, Joe decided. Not, of course, that he had ever steered a scow of any sort, but he had imagination.

The Adventurer and Follow Me were heading West

Southwest one-fourth West to pass Boon Island to starboard, and Kittery Point lay some thirty miles away. As it was then just short of three bells, and as they were making, as near as those aboard the Catspaw could judge, very nearly three miles an hour, it seemed probable that by two o'clock that night they would be at anchor off Portsmouth Harbour. Of course, there was always the possibility of bad weather or a broken cable, but the Catspaw's crew declined to be pessimistic. They were having a royal good time. There was enough danger in the enterprise to make it exciting, and, being normal, healthy chaps, excitement was better than food. Perry proclaimed his delight at last finding an adventure quite to his taste.

"Being wrecked on that island the other day was poor fun," he declared. "And it was dreadfully messy, too. But this is the real thing, fellows! Why, this old hooker might take it into her head to go down ker-plop any minute!"

"Huh," replied Wink Wheeler, "that may be your idea of the real thing, Perry, but it isn't mine. I'm just as strong for adventure as you, sonny, but I prefer mine on top of the water and not underneath!"

"Shucks," said Joe, "this thing can't sink. Look at all the lumber on her!"

"Yes, but it might get water-logged," suggested Bert from the door of the deck-house. "Wood does, doesn't it?"

"Not for a long time," said Joe. "Years, maybe. And this lumber's new. You can tell by the looks of it."

"Well, don't be to sure," advised Perry, darkly. "You never can tell. And there's another thing, too. We're top-heavy, with all these boards piled up on deck here, and if a storm came up we might easily turn turtle."

"Oh, dry up," said Han. "You're worse than Poe's raven. Besides, she couldn't turn over, you idiot, as long as the lumber floated. She'd have to stay right-side up."

"Wish we had a barometer aboard," said Joe. "We'd know what to expect then."

"You mean we'd know what you'd tell us to expect," replied Perry ironically. "And then we'd get something else. For my part, I'm glad they took their old barometer with them."

"They took about everything that wasn't nailed down except the stove," said Wink.

"That's nailed down, too," said Bert. "Or, at least, it's bolted. How many do you suppose there were on board when the storm hit them?"

"About five, maybe. Perhaps six. I guess five could handle a schooner this size. Five are handling her now, anyway," Joe added.

Nothing of moment occurred during the afternoon, if we except occasional squalls of rain, until, at about five, those on the schooner observed a smudge of smoke to the southward that eventually proved to be coming from an ocean tug. The tug approached them half an hour later and ran alongside the Adventurer. The boys on the Catspaw saw the boat's captain appear from the pilot-house and point a megaphone toward the white cruiser, and glimpsed Steve replying. What was said they could only surmise, but the tug's mission was evident enough.

"He wants the job," said Joe anxiously. "Wonder if Steve will let him have it."

"I hope he doesn't," said Wink. "We can do the trick without anyone's help, I guess. Besides, he'd want half the money we'll get."

"More than half, probably," said Han. "He's still talking. I wish he'd run away smiling."

He did finally. That is, he went off, but whether he was smiling they couldn't say. They fancied, however, that he was not, for the Catspaw would have made a nice prize for the tug's owners.

The tug plunged off the way she had come and was soon only a speck in the gathering twilight. It seemed a bit more lonesome after she had gone, and more than one of the quintette aboard the Catspaw wondered whether, after all, it might not have been the part of wisdom to have accepted assistance. Darkness came early that evening, and by six the lights on the Adventurer and Follow Me showed wanly across the surly, shadowy sea. Han and Perry had already prepared the two lanterns they had found on board and as soon as the cruisers set the fashion they placed them fore and aft, one where it could be plainly seen from the boats ahead and the other on the roof of the deck-house. While they were at that task the darkness settled down rapidly, and by the time they had finished the cruisers were only blotches against which shone the white lights placed at the sterns for the guidance of the Catspaw's navigators.

The boys ate their suppers in relays about half-past six. Bert had prepared plenty of coffee and cooked several pans of bacon and eggs, and had done very well for a tyro. Later the Adventurer turned on her searchlight and against the white path of it she was plainly visible. A more than usually severe squall of wind and rain broke over them about eight and when the rain, which pelted quite fiercely for a few minutes, had passed on the wind continued. It was coming from the northwest and held a chilliness that made the amateur mariners squirm down into their sweaters and raincoats. The Catspaw, low in the water as she was, nevertheless felt the push of the wind and keeping her blunt nose pointed midway between the two lights ahead became momentarily more difficult. At the end of an hour it required the services of both Joe and Wink to hold the schooner steady. Perry and Han, huddled as much out of the chilling wind as they could be, kept watch at the bow. Keeping watch, though, was more a figure of speech than an actuality, for the night was intensely dark and save for the lights of the towing craft nothing was discernible.

The sea arose under the growing strength of the nor'wester and soon the waves were thudding hard against the rail and the piled lumber and sending showers of spray across the deck. The Catspaw rolled and wallowed and the watchers at the bow soon knew from the sound of the straining cables that the cruisers were having difficulty. Bert crawled forward through the darkness and spray and joined them.

"Joe says they'll be signalling to cast off the hawsers pretty quick," he bellowed above the wind and waves. "He says we aren't making any headway at all now."

"Gee, it'll be fine to be left pitching around here all night," said Perry alarmedly. "If we only had an anchor-"

"I'd rather keep on drifting," said Han. "It'll be a lot more comfortable."

"Maybe, but we'll be going out to sea again. Seems to me they might keep hold of us even if they don't get along much." Perry ducked before the hissing avalanche of spray that was flung across the deck. "There's one thing certain," he added despondently. "We've got to stay on this old turtle as long as she'll let us, for we couldn't get that dingey off now if we tried!"

"What's the difference?" asked Han. "They'll stick around us until the wind goes down again, and we're just as well off here as they are on the boats. Bet you the Adventurer is doing some pitching herself about now!"

They relapsed into silence then, for making one's self heard above the clamour of wind and water and the groans and creakings of the schooner was hard work. They watched the Adventurer for the expected signal for a long time, but it was nearly ten when a lantern began to swing from side to side on the cruiser. A moment later they heard faintly the shriek of the Adventurer's whistle.

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