In the prime of his belligerent career the Pet of ’Frisco had undergone many fierce contests and withstood some terrible punishments, but never had he undertaken a task calling for greater courage and power of endurance than the one he had this night voluntarily assumed. Dashed about by the seas, he yet managed to keep to the surface; minutes seemed to lengthen into eternity; many times he called out loudly. The arms about his neck relaxed, but he held the child to him. Not for an instant did the temptation come to him to release her that he might the more surely save himself. Overwhelmed again and again by the waves, each time he emerged with her tight against his breast; half-strangled, he continued to fight on. But at length even his dogged obstinacy and determination began to flag; he felt his strength going, when raising his eyes he saw one of the small craft from the lost vessel bearing directly down upon him.
The sight inspired new energy and effort; nearer, nearer, she drew; now she was but a few yards away. Then suddenly the sheet of the life-boat went out and the little sail fluttered like a mad thing, while the men bent with might and main over their ash handles in the endeavor to obey the commands of the chief mate in the stern. But despite skill and strength she was not easy to steer; once she nearly capsized; then eager hands reached over the side. The convict held up the child; a voice—the police agent’s—called out that they “had her”; and then the mate broke in with harsh, warning yells.
“Pull port!—quick!—or we’re over!” And at once the outreaching arms returned quickly to their task; as the child was drawn in, oars dragged and tugged; the life-boat came slowly about, shipping several barrels of water. At the same time some one made the loosened sheet taut, the canvas caught the gust and the craft gained sufficient headway to enable her to run over, and not be run down by the seas. As she careened and plunged, racing down a frothing dark billow, the convict, relieved of his burden, clung to the lower gunwale. By a desperate effort he drew himself up, when a face vaguely remembered—as part of a bad dream—looked into his, with a dash of surprise.
“Eh?—Gimme a hand—”
The asked-for hand swept suddenly under the one grasping the side of the boat, and shot up sharply. In the darkness and confusion no one saw the act. The convict disappeared, but his half-articulate curses followed.
“The fellow’s let go,” muttered Lord Ronsdale with a shiver.
At the steering oar the chief mate, hearing the cries of the man, cast a swift glance over his shoulder and hesitated. To bring the boat, half-filled with water, around now, meant inevitable disaster; one experiment of the sort had well-nigh ended in their all being drowned. He knew he was personally responsible for the lives in his charge; and with but an instant in which to decide, he declined to repeat the risk.