As the bitter night crept on they wore around the Cape, and then, when it seemed safe to do so, Ensign MacMasters ordered the helm shifted and they edged farther in toward the land.
In time the out-thrust of the coast partly sheltered them and the steamer ran into more quiet waters. But the gale still held, and from the same quarter.
They sighted only smacks and other small fry, including some few coastwise steamers whose routes hugged the land. Surely they might expect safety from submarines so far inshore, for this coast is treacherous.
Another day and night passed. The wireless operator had thus far failed to raise the Kennebunk, although he called every hour.
Mr. MacMasters and the warrant officer studied the chart anxiously. There were shallow waters hereabout, and although the steamer demanded little depth, there were bights between the reefs that were dangerous.
At daybreak of the fourth day out they were in the track of Charleston craft and quite near to a string of islands. There was plenty of water between the two outer islands. The passage was, indeed, a popular channel for both steam and sailing vessels.
The Kennebunk’s tender was half way through this gut when suddenly, and without warning, it seemed as though the bow of the craft hit squarely upon a rock.
She stopped with an awful shock, seemed to rebound, and then the forward part rose on a wave that shot it into the air. The explosion that followed was muffled; but the sea about the doomed craft fairly boiled.
“We’re sinking! All hands on deck!” shouted the warrant officer.
The boatswain’s mate piped his shrillest. Those below swarmed upon the already settling deck. It was plain at once that the steamer had but a few moments to live.
“A mine!” declared Ensign MacMasters. “That is what did it! That Hun mine-sower has been this way!”
The men and boys went to quarters coolly. They had been drilling every day on the steamer just as though they were aboard the Kennebunk.
There was both a liferaft and a tight yawl aboard. These were got over into the comparatively quiet sea, water and an emergency ration-cask put aboard each, and Mr. MacMasters brought his instruments and papers, taking his place in the stern of the boat. The latter had a small engine, and there was a hawser with which she might tow the raft.
Meanwhile the wireless operator had been calling for help. He got a reply from a land station, but none from any sister naval ship. However, they were so near land that it did not seem that this mattered.
“Let her go, boy!” shouted the ensign to the operator. “Come on! She’s going down.”
They pulled away just in time, and got the little engine to kicking as the wrecked auxiliary craft of the Kennebunk sank stern foremost under the sea. As she went down her bows rose out of the water and the castaways saw the great wound torn in two of her water-tight compartments by the mine.