Dan’s face was bloodless and strained, and his hair fell across his eyes, while crouching beneath him, with hands on the under spokes, were the gigantic shoulders of his mate, the sweaty gray hair and the red, thick nape of the neck suggesting the very epitome of muscular effort; and on the other side, writhing and quivering, was the deck-hand, a study in steel and wire.
The afternoon was still young, but the heavens were darker than twilight, and the rocking sea was as black as slate, save where a comber, as though gnashing its teeth in fury, flashed a sudden white crest, which crumbled immediately into the heaving pall.
“Now, boys, together! Catch back that last spoke we lost!”
And while Dan’s words were being shattered into shreds of sound by the shriek of the gale, the three men bent their backs in a fresh effort to put the Fledgling’s nose a point better into the on-rushing waves.
They did it too. With a hiss and a crunch the bow swung in square to the watery thunderbolts and the stanch craft, survivor of a hundred perils, a ten-foot section of her port rail gone, a great dent in the steel deck-house forward, began to climb over the water hills with much of her usual precision—down on her side, clear to the bottom of a hollow, then settling on an even keel with a jerk, climbing the slaty incline, stiff as a church, then down, down, half on her side again, then up once more.
“She’s making good weather of it,” and Dan took his hands from the wheel, stood erect, and gazed through the after windows, searching a horizon which he could see only when the tug climbed to a wave top. He turned to his mate.
“There’s no use hunting for those barges,” he said tentatively. “When that tow-line broke back there, it seemed as though one of my heart strings went too. But there was nothing to do about it; nothing we could do. It was all we could do to work the Fledgling through.”
“Most captains would ‘a’ cut them barges adrift long before the line broke,” replied the mate; “no use thinkin’ about them now; they’ve gone, long ago.”
Dan worked his way along the pitching floor to the side windows. His face was tense and drawn. He had never lost a tow before—this was a part of his reputation. And now. . . . He turned slowly to resume his place at the wheel, when suddenly, as the tug was sidling down a wave, the tail of his eye caught a glimpse of a buff funnel protruding above the wave tops a good quarter of a mile away. His first impression was that the water had claimed all but the funnel. He was not sure. He waited. It seemed an age while the tug climbed to the top of the next comber. Slowly, slowly the buff funnel again came into view, and then as the tug still climbed he saw it all—a white, broad-waisted yacht cluttering in the grip of the waters, throwing her stern toward heaven, reeling over, taking water on one rail, letting it through the opposite scuppers, sticking her bow into the waves and rising, shaking off the water like a fat spaniel. Puffs of steam were escaping jerkily from the whistle valve, and, although Dan could not hear, he knew she was whistling for assistance.