THE FACE IN THE FIRELIGHT
Sudden disaster usually brings sudden calm, the pause before resolution or resignation. For the first instant after the shock of the boat upon the impaling snag I stood irresolute; the next, I was busy with plans for escape. Running down the companionway, I found myself among a crowd of excited deck hands, most of whom, with many of the passengers, were pushing toward the starboard rail, whence could be seen the gloom of the forest along shore. The gangway door on the opposite side of the boat was open, and as I looked out I could see the long white arms of the giant snag reaching alongside. Without much plan or premeditation I sprang out, and making good my hold upon the nearest limb as I plunged, found myself, to my surprise, standing in not more than four feet of water, the foot of the bar evidently running down well under the boat.
Just as I turned to call to others I saw the tall figure of my plainsman, Auberry, appear at the doorway, and he also, with scarcely a moment’s deliberation, took a flying leap and joined me on the snag. “It’s better here than there,” he said, “if she sinks or busts, and they’re allus likely to do both.”
As we pulled ourselves up into the fork of the long naked branch we heard a voice, and saw the face of a woman leaning over the rail of the upper deck. I recognized my whilom friend, Mandy McGovern. “Whut you all doin’ down there?” she called. “Wait a minute; I’m comin’, too.” A moment later she appeared at the opening of the lower deck and craned out her long neck. I then saw at her side the figure of a young woman, her hair fallen from its coils, her feet bare, her body wrapped apparently only in some light silken dressing to be thrown above her nightwear. She, too, looked out into the darkness, but shrank back.
“Here, you,” called out Mandy McGovern, “git hold of the end of this rope.”
She tossed to me the end of the gang-plank rope, by which the sliding stage was drawn out and in at the boat landings. I caught this and passed it over a projection on the snag.
“Now, haul it out,” commanded she; and as we pulled, she pushed, so that presently indeed we found that the end reached the edge of the limb on which we sat. Without any concern, Mrs. McGovern stepped out on the swaying bridge, sunbonnet hanging down her back, her long rifle under one arm, while by the other hand she dragged her tall son, Andrew Jackson, who was blubbering in terror.
This bridge, however, proved insecure, for as Mandy gave Andrew Jackson a final yank at its farther end, the latter stumbled, and in his struggles to lay hold upon the snag, pushed the end of the planks off their support. His mother’s sinewy arm thrust him into safety, and she herself clambered up, very wet and very voluble in her imprecations on his clumsiness.
“Thar, now, look what ye did, ye low-down coward,” she said. “Like to ‘a’ drownded both of us, and left the gal back there on the boat!”