gripped her. Scarcely perceptibly she gave ground, and a lifetime seemed to elapse to John's horror-stricken mind as she fell slowly over, as if fighting for every inch, and conscious of her terrible responsibilities for the issues at stake.
At last, in spite of her stout resistance, and before John could climb aft and get at the main sheet, or do anything to relieve the boat, her stern was driven right under water by the sheer pressure of the storm. Slowly she turned over, leaving all of her occupants struggling in the icy water, for there were many pieces of ice still "knocking around."
The slow rate at which the boat had gone over was one point in their favour, however, for it enabled even the little lads to get clear of the gunwale; and by the help of John and Jim all five were soon huddled on the upturned keel of the boat. The boys being all safe for the moment, John rubbed his eyes, and, raising himself as high as he could, viewed the situation. Alas! the squall had come to stay. Everywhere now the placid surface of the sea was ruffled and angry. The rising, flaky clouds convinced him even in that instantaneous glance that the brewing storm offered them little chance for their lives.
Far away to leeward, not less than four miles distant, the loom of the land was only just visible. Well he realized that it would be many long hours before the boat, with her masts and sails still fast in, could drive near enough to enable them to make a landing. For, like most fishermen in these icy waters, none of them knew how to swim. Moreover, he soon found that the anchor, fast to the warp, had fallen out, and would certainly sooner or later touch bottom—thus robbing them of their one and only chance of escape by preventing the boat from drifting into shallow water.
So cold was it already that it appeared as if a few moments at most must chill the life out of at least the younger children.
"Hold Willie on, Ned, and ask God to bring us all safe home," said John. He told me that he felt somehow as if their prayers were more likely to be heard than his own. He then crawled forward, having made up his mind to try and cut the anchor free, and to get the rope to tie round the boat and hold on the children. His determination was fortified by his anxiety; but it was a forlorn hope, for it meant lowering himself right into the water, and he knew well enough that he could not swim a yard. Then it was done, and he was once more clinging to the keel with the rope in his hand. It was not difficult to get a bight round the boat, and soon he had the children firmly lashed on and the boat was again making fair progress before the wind to the opposite shore.
Hours seemed to go by. The children were sleepy. Apparently they no longer felt the cold, and the average man might have thought that it was a miracle on their behalf, for God knows they had prayed hard enough for one. But John recognized only too well that it was that merciful harbinger of the last long sleep, which had overtaken more than one of his best friends, when adrift in the storms of winter. And still the age-long journey dragged hopelessly on.
At last the awful suspense, a thousand times more cruel for their being unable to do anything, was broken by even the welcome incident of a new danger. Breakers were visible in the direct course of their drift. "Maybe she'll turn over, Jim," whispered the skipper. "I reckon we must loose t' children for fear she does." This being effected as promptly as their condition allowed, Tom was told off to do nothing but watch them and keep them safe. For already the men had planned, if the slightest chance offered, to try and get the masts out while she lay on her beam-ends.
The breakers? Well, they knew they were only of small extent. There was a pinnacle of rock and a single sea might possibly carry them over it; but the peril of being washed off was none the less. Now they could see the huge rise of the combing sea with its frowning black top rushing at the shoal, and smashing into an avalanche of snowy foam. They could hear the dull roar of the sea, and its mighty thunder, as it curled over and fell furiously upon itself, for want of other prey.
"Good-bye, Jim," whispered the skipper. "The children is all right either way, but one of us may come through. Tell 'em home it was all right if I goes."
Almost as he stopped speaking, the rising swell caught the craft, and threw her once more on her beam-ends. As for a moment she lay on her side, the men attempted to free the masts, but could do nothing, for the boat almost immediately again fell over, bottom up. But a second comber, lifting her with redoubled violence, threw them all clear of the boat, turned her momentarily right way up, and then breaking into the masts and sails, tipped her for the third time upside down, flinging her at the same instant in mad fury clear of the angry water. So violent had been the blow which had thrown them clear, that they must inevitably all have perished, had not the last effort of the breakers actually hurled the boat again almost on the top of them. Clutching as at a straw, the two men caught the loops of the rope which they had wound round their craft, but they could see nothing of the other three. Suddenly, from almost directly under the boat, Tom's head appeared within reach. Grabbing him, they tried to drag him up on to the keel. Rolling in the wake of the breakers which still followed them with vicious pertinacity, they twice lost their hold of the boy, their now numbed limbs scarcely giving them strength to grasp anything. It seemed of little account at the time either way. But their third attempt was successful, and they got the lad once more on to the bottom of the boat.
Of the children they saw no more. Only when Tom had revived somewhat could he explain that the capsizing boat had caught them all three under it as in a trap, that he had succeeded, still clinging to Willie, to get him from under it, and that he was still holding his brother when he first came to the surface. After that he did not remember anything till they were calling to him on the boat's bottom. The men were sure that it was so—that because he had been true to the last to his trust, he had been such a deadweight the first two times he came to the surface.
And now began again the cruel, wearisome, endless drift of the water-logged boat toward the still distant shore, lightened but little by the loss of the loved children. There was no longer any doubt left in their minds; unless something could be done, none of them would possibly live to tell the tale. It was the still active mind and indomitable courage of the skipper which found the solution. Crawling close to Jim, he said: "There's only one chance. We must turn her over, and get in her, or perish. I'm going to try and loose t' masts."
Swinging himself once more into the bitter-cold water, he succeeded in finding the slight ropes which formed the stays, and though it is almost incredible, he actually managed to cut and free them all, before Jim hauled him back, more dead than alive, on to the boat's bottom. At all hazards they must right the boat and climb into her. Their plans were soon made. Tom, placed between the two men, was to do exactly as they did. Stretching themselves out, and holding the keel rope in their hands, they all threw themselves over on one side, lying as nearly as possible at full length. The boat responded instantly, and their only fear was that, as she had done before, she might again go right over on them. But there were no masts now to hold the wind, so she stood up on her beam-ends. As the water took the weights of the men, it was all