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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Iron Trail - Chapter 2. How A Girl Appeared Out Of The Night
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The Iron Trail - Chapter 2. How A Girl Appeared Out Of The Night Post by :rvlawrence Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :3150

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The Iron Trail - Chapter 2. How A Girl Appeared Out Of The Night

CHAPTER II. HOW A GIRL APPEARED OUT OF THE NIGHT

O'Neil felt for the little bracket-lamp on the wall of his stateroom and lit it. By its light he dragged a life-preserver from the rack overhead and slipped the tapes about his shoulders, reflecting that Alaskan waters are disagreeably cold. Then he opened his traveling-bags and dumped their contents upon the white counterpane of his berth, selecting out of the confusion certain documents and trinkets. The latter he thrust into his pockets as he found them, the former he wrapped in handkerchiefs before stowing them away. The ship had listed now so that it was difficult to maintain a footing; the lamp hung at a grotesque angle and certain articles had become dislodged from their resting-places. From outside came the gentle lapping of waters, a gurgling and hissing as of air escaping through the decks. He could feel the ship strain. He acknowledged that it was not pleasant thus to be left alone on a sinking hulk, particularly on an ink-black night--

All at once he whirled and faced the door with an exclamation of astonishment, for a voice had addressed him.

There,--clinging to the casing, stood a woman--a girl--evidently drawn out of the darkness by the light which streamed down across the sloping deck from his stateroom. Plainly she had but just awakened, for she was clothed in a silken nightrobe which failed to conceal the outlines of her body, the swelling contour of her bosom, the ripened fullness of her limbs. She had flung a quilted dressing-gown of some sort over her shoulders and with one bare arm and hand strove to hold it in place. He saw that her pink feet were thrust into soft, heeless slippers--that her hair, black in this light, cascaded down to her waist, and that her eyes, which were very dark and very large, were fixed upon him with a stare like that of a sleep-walker.

"It is so dark--so strange--so still!" she murmured. "What has happened?"

"God! Didn't they waken you?" he cried in sharp surprise.

"Is the ship-sinking?" Her odd bewilderment of voice and gaze puzzled him.

He nodded. "We struck a rock. The passengers have been taken off. We're the only ones left. In Heaven's name where have you been?"

"I was asleep."

He shook his head in astonishment. "How you failed to hear that hubbub--"

"I heard something, but I was ill. My head--I took something to ease the pain."

"Ah! Medicine! It hasn't worn off yet, I see! You shouldn't have taken it. Drugs are nothing but poison to young people. Now at my age there might be some excuse for resorting to them, but you--" He was talking to cover the panic of his thoughts, for his own predicament had been serious enough, and her presence rendered it doubly embarrassing. What in the world to do with her he scarcely knew. His lips were smiling, but his eyes were grave as they roved over the cabin and out into the blackness of the night.

"Are we going to drown?" she asked, dully.

"Nonsense!" He laughed in apparent amusement, showing his large, strong teeth.

She came closer, glancing behind her and shrinking from the oily waters which could be seen over the rail and which had stolen up nearly to the sill of the door. She steadied herself by laying hold of him uncertainly. Involuntarily he turned his eyes away, for he felt shame at profaning her with his gaze. She was very soft and white, a fragile thing utterly unfit to cope with the night air and the freezing waters of Halibut Bay.

"I'm wretchedly afraid!" she whispered through white lips.

"None of that!" he said, brusquely. "I'll see that nothing happens to you." He slipped out of his life-preserver and adjusted it over her shoulders, first drawing her arms through the sleeves of her dressing-gown and knotting the cord snugly around her waist. "Just as a matter of precaution!" he assured her. "We may get wet. Can you swim?"

She shook her head.

"Never mind; I can." He found another life-belt, fitted it to his own form, and led her out upon the deck. The scuppers were awash now and she gasped as the sea licked her bare feet. "Cold, isn't it?" he remarked. "But there's no time to dress, and it's just as well, perhaps, for heavy clothes would only hamper you."

She strove to avoid the icy waters and finally paused, moaning: "I can't! I can't go on!"

Slipping his arm about her, he bore her to the door of the main cabin and entered. He could feel her warm, soft body quivering against his own. She had clasped his neck so tightly that he could scarcely breathe, but, lowering her until her feet were on the dry carpet, he gently loosed her arms.

"Now, my dear child," he told her, "you must do exactly as I tell you. Come! Calm yourself or I won't take you any farther." He held her off by her shoulders. "I may have to swim with you; you mustn't cling to me so!"

He heard her gasp and felt her draw away abruptly. Then he led her by the hand out upon the starboard deck, and together they made their way forward to the neighborhood of the bridge.

The lights he had seen upon coming from the forward hold were still in view and he hailed them at the top of his voice. But other voices were calling through the night, some of them comparatively close at hand, others answering faintly from far in-shore. The boats first launched were evidently landing, and those in charge of them were shouting directions to the ones behind. Some women had started singing and the chorus floated out to the man and the girl:

Pull for the shore, sailor, Pull for the shore.

It helped to drown their cries for assistance.

O'Neil judged that the ship was at least a quarter of a mile from the beach, and his heart sank, for he doubted that either he or his companion could last long in these waters. It occurred to him that Brennan might be close by, waiting for the Nebraska to sink --it would be unlike the little captain to forsake his trust until the last possible moment--but he reasoned that the cargo of lives in the skipper's boat would induce him to stand well off to avoid accident. He called lustily time after time, but no answer came.

Meanwhile the girl stood quietly beside him.

"Can't we make a raft?" she suggested, timidly, when he ceased to shout. "I've read of such things."

"There's no time," he told her. "Are you very cold?"

She nodded. "Please forgive me for acting so badly just now. It was all so sudden and--so awful! I think I can behave better. Oh! What was that?" She clutched him nervously, for from the forward end of the ship had come a muffled scream, like that of a woman.

"It's my poor horses," said the man, and she looked at him curiously, prompted by the catch in his throat.

There followed a wait which seemed long, but was in reality of but a few minutes, for the ship was sliding backward and the sea was creeping upward faster and faster. At last they heard a shuddering sigh as she parted from the rocks and the air rushed up through the deck openings with greater force. The Nebraska swung sluggishly with the tide; then, when her upper structure had settled flush with the sea, Murray O'Neil took the woman in his arms and leaped clear of the rail.

The first gasping moment of immersion was fairly paralyzing; after that the reaction came, and the two began to struggle away from the sinking ship. But the effect of the reaction soon wore off. The water was cruelly cold and their bodies ached in every nerve and fiber. O'Neil did his best to encourage his companion. He talked to her through his chattering teeth, and once she had recovered from the mental shock of the first fearful plunge she responded pluckily. He knew that his own heart was normal and strong, but he feared that the girl's might not be equal to the strain. Had he been alone, he felt sure that he could have gained the shore, but with her upon his hands he was able to make but little headway. The expanse of waters seemed immense; it fairly crushed hope out of him. The lights upon the shore were as distant as fixed stars. This was a country of heavy tides, he reflected, and he began to fear that the current was sweeping them out. He turned to look for the ship, but could see no traces of her, and since it was inconceivable that the Nebraska could have sunk so quietly, her disappearance confirmed his fears. More than once he fancied he heard an answer to his cries for help-- the rattle of rowlocks or the splash of oars--but his ears proved unreliable.

After a time the girl began to moan with pain and terror, but as numbness gradually robbed her of sensation she became quiet. A little later her grip upon his clothing relaxed and he saw that she was collapsing. He drew her to him and held her so that her face lay upturned and her hair floated about his shoulders. In this position she could not drown, at least while his strength lasted. But he was rapidly losing control of himself; his teeth were clicking loosely, his muscles shook and twitched It required a great effort to shout, and he thought that his voice did not carry so far as at first. Therefore he fell silent, paddling with his free arm and kicking, to keep his blood stirring.

Several times he gave up and floated quietly, but courage was ingrained in him; deep down beneath his consciousness was a vitality, an inherited stubborn resistance to death, of which he knew nothing. It was that unidentified quality of mind which supports one man through a great sickness or a long period of privation, while another of more robust physique succumbs. It was the same quality which brings one man out from desert wastes, or the white silence of the polar ice, while the bodies of his fellows remain to mark the trail. This innate power of supreme resistance is found in chosen individuals throughout the animal kingdom, and it was due to it alone that Murray O'Neil continued to fight the tide long after he had ceased to exert conscious control.

At length there came through the man's dazed sensibilities a sound different from those he had been hearing: it was a human voice, mingled with the measured thud of oars in their sockets. It roused him like an electric current and gave him strength to cry out hoarsely. Some one answered him; then out of the darkness to seaward emerged a deeper blot, which loomed up hugely yet proved to be no more than a life-boat banked full of people. It came to a stop within an oar's-length of him. From the babble of voices he distinguished one that was familiar, and cried the name of Johnny Brennan. His brain had cleared now, a great dreamlike sense of thanksgiving warmed him, and he felt equal to any effort. He was vaguely amazed to find that his limbs refused to obey him.

His own name was being pronounced in shocked tones; the splash from an oar filled his face and strangled him, but he managed to lay hold of the blade, and was drawn in until outstretched hands seized him.

An oarsman was saying: "Be careful, there! We can't take him in without swamping."

But Brennan's voice shouted: "Make room or I'll bash in your bloody skull."

Another protest arose, and O'Neil saw that the craft was indeed loaded to the gunwales.

"Take the girl--quick," he implored. "I'll hang on. You can--tow me."

The limp form was removed from his side and dragged over the thwarts while a murmur of excited voices went up.

"Can you hold out for a minute, Murray?" asked Brennan.

"Yes--I think so."

"I'd give you my place, but you're too big to be taken in without danger."

"Go ahead," chattered the man in the water. "Look after the girl before it's--too late."

The captain's stout hand was in his collar now and he heard him crying:

"Pull, you muscle-bound heathens! Everybody sit still! Now away with her, men. Keep up your heart, Murray, my boy; remember it takes more than water to kill a good Irishman. It's only a foot or two farther, and they've started a fire. Serves you right, you big idiot, for going overboard, with all those boats. Man dear, but you're pulling the arm out of me; it's stretched out like a garden hose! Hey! Cover up that girl, and you, lady, rub her feet and hands. Good! Move over please--so the men can bail."

The next O'Neil knew he was feeling very miserable and very cold, notwithstanding the fact that he was wrapped in dry clothing and lay so close to a roaring spruce fire that its heat blistered him.

Brennan was bending over him with eyes wet. He was swearing, too, in a weak, faltering way, calling upon all the saints to witness that the prostrate man was the embodiment of every virtue, and that his death would be a national calamity. Others were gathered about, men and women, and among them O'Neil saw the doctor from Sitka whom he had met on shipboard.

As soon as he was able to speak he inquired for the safety of the girl he had helped to rescue. Johnny promptly reassured him.

"Man, dear, she's doing fine. A jigger of brandy brought her to, gasping like a blessed mermaid."

"Was anybody lost?"

"Praise God, not a soul! But it's lucky I stood by to watch the old tub go down, or we'd be mourning two. You'll be well by morning, for there's a cannery in the next inlet and I've sent a boat's crew for help. And now, my boy, lay yourself down again and take a sleep, won't you? It'll be doing you a lot of good."

But O'Neil shook his head and struggled to a sitting posture.

"Thanks, Johnny," said he, "but I couldn't. I can hear those horses screaming, and besides--I must make new plans."

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