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Touched by the live wire of human sympathy, Camp Spurling came wide awake in an instant. Out there, four miles to the south, men were perhaps battling for their lives. Jim issued his orders like bullets.
"Come on, boys! We'll take the _Barracouta_. Fetch a five-gallon can of gas from the fish-house, Perce! Budge and Throppy, launch that dory!"
Dashing into the cabin, he quickly reappeared.
"Thought I'd better get one of those first-aid packets! Somebody may be burnt bad. Now, fellows! Lively!"
The dory was barely afloat when Percy came staggering down the beach with the heavy can. Spurling swung it aboard, and all but Filippo jumped in.
"Start your fire again!" shouted back Jim to the Italian. "Make some coffee! And be sure to have plenty of hot water! We may need it."
Soon the sloop was under way and heading out of the cove.
"Lucky you thought of that fresh can of gas, Jim," said Budge. "The tank's pretty near empty. We'd have been in a nice fix if the engine had stopped about a mile south of the island."
"Take the tiller, Perce!" ordered Spurling.
Vaulting up out of the standing-room, he grasped the port shroud and fastened his eyes on the fiercely blazing vessel. The flames had run up her masts and rigging, and she stood out a lurid silhouette against the black horizon. It was evident that she was doomed.
"She's gone!" was Jim's comment as he dropped back into the standing-room. "Hope her crew got off all right. There isn't much we can do to help; but at any rate we ought to go out and tow in her boats."
"What is she? Fisherman?" asked Throppy.
"Most likely! And not a very big one. Shouldn't wonder if she'd had a gas explosion in her cabin; I've heard of a good many such cases. Hope n.o.body's been burnt bad!"
There were a few minutes of silence as they gazed on the spectacle of destruction. The _Barracouta_, driven to her utmost, steadily lessened the distance. Brighter and larger grew the fire; every detail on the fated craft stood sharply out against the pitchy background.
"Here come two boats!" exclaimed Lane.
Sure enough, they were clearly visible, more than two miles off, rising and falling on the swell, their oars flashing in the light from the conflagration. The crew had abandoned the hopeless fight and were saving themselves.
"Keep her straight for 'em, Perce!" directed Jim.
Whittington obeyed. Soon the _Barracouta_ was within hailing distance of the dories. In the now diminishing light from the distant fire the boys could see that both were crowded with dark figures.
"Must be at least twenty-five aboard the two," commented Stevens.
"Yes," returned Spurling. "These fishermen carry big crews. Ahoy there!
What's the name of your vessel?"
"The _Clementine Briggs_, of Gloucester," replied a man in the bow of the foremost dory. "Running in to Boothbay from Cashe's with a load of herring. The gas exploded and set her on fire. We tried to put it out, but it was no use. Just got clear with our lives and what we stood in."
"Couple of men got their faces burnt, but not very bad. Lucky it was no worse. But the old schooner's gone. Pretty tough on Captain Sykes, here, for he owned most of her and didn't have much insurance. Fisherman's luck!"
"Want a tow in to the island?"
"Well, toss us your painter, and tell the other boat to make fast to your stern."
In a very short time the _Barracouta_ was headed back for Tarpaulin, with the two heavily loaded dories trailing behind her. Delayed by her tow, she moved considerably slower than when coming out. A strange silence hung over the two dories. For fishermen, their crews were unusually quiet, sobered, evidently, by the catastrophe that had overtaken their schooner.
"Wouldn't those men who were burnt like to come aboard the sloop?"
inquired Spurling. "Perhaps I can give 'em first aid."
"No," returned the spokesman. "One of 'em's Captain Sykes, here in this dory with the handkerchief over his face. He isn't suffering much, but his cheeks got scorched, so I'm talking for him. The other man is in the next boat. The only thing for 'em to do is to grin and bear it; but just now they're not grinning much, 'specially the captain."
Silence again. The sullen, red blaze on the distant vessel was dying down against the horizon. The flames had stripped her to a skeleton. Her hempen running rigging had been consumed; sails, gaffs, and booms lay smoldering on her decks; above the hull only her masts and bowsprit were outlined in fire against the blackness behind.
Lacking anything better to do, Jim began counting the men in the dories.
He made thirteen in each. Most of them sat like graven images, neither speaking nor stirring. They had not even turned their heads to look at the perishing schooner. He could not understand such indifference to the fate of the craft that had been their home.
Sprowl's Cove was right ahead. Filippo opened the cabin door and stood framed within it, the light behind him casting a cheery glow down the beach. Louder and louder the bank behind the lagoon flung back the staccato of the exhaust. Presently the sloop nosed into the haven, the engine stopped, and Throppy went forward to gaff the mooring.
The dories were cast off and rowed to the beach. By the time the boys got ash.o.r.e all the men had landed. Jim, who had been watching them quietly, noted that most of them disembarked clumsily, more like landlubbers than sailors. They separated into two groups of very unequal size. One, numbering six, including the men with handkerchiefs over their burnt faces, withdrew from the others and began to talk in low tones, with earnest, excited gestures. The remaining twenty clotted loosely together, awkward and ill at ease, still preserving their mysterious silence.
Before Jim had time to offer his unexpected guests anything to eat or drink, Filippo bustled hospitably down the beach to the larger group.
"Will you have _caffe_? It is hot and _eccellente_."
They stared at him without replying. By the light from the open door Jim could see that they were dressed like landsmen and that their clothes did not fit well. Their faces were darkish, they had flat noses, and their close-cropped hair was straight and black.
Before Filippo could repeat his question a man from the smaller group hurried up and pushed himself abruptly between the silent score and their questioner.
"No!" said he, brusquely. "We don't want anything. We had supper just before the fire."
His tone and att.i.tude forbade further questioning. Filippo, abashed by the rebuff, returned rather shamefacedly to the cabin. The speaker remained with the group, as if to protect them from further approaches.
To Jim his att.i.tude seemed to be almost that of a guard. It deepened the mystery that already hung about the party.
It was now past eight o'clock, and naturally some provision would soon have to be made for pa.s.sing the night. Jim pondered. Twenty-six guests would prove a severe tax on their already cramped accommodations.
Still, the thing could be arranged; it must be. The smaller group of six could be taken into the camp. Six of the silent twenty could be stowed away aboard the sloop; while the remaining fourteen must make what shift they could in the fish-house. Jim proposed this plan to the sentinel.
The man disapproved flatly.
"No!" was his decided reply. "We've got to get away to-night."
"To-night?" echoed Jim in amazement. "Why, man alive, you can't do that!
It's fifteen miles to Matinicus, and you're loaded so deep it'd take you almost until morning to row there. And even if you made it all right, you wouldn't gain anything, for the boat for Rockland doesn't leave until the first of the afternoon. Besides, this wind's liable to blow up a storm. Of course you could row ten miles north to Head Harbor on Isle au Haut, walk up the island, and catch the morning boat for Stonington; but you'd have to pull most of the way against the ebb, and when this wind gets a little stronger it's going to be pretty choppy. _I_ wouldn't want to risk it. Better stop with us to-night and let us make you as comfortable as we can; and to-morrow you can start for any place you please."