By Sheer Pluck extract

Chapter 2:  A Mad Dog

 

In the English Channel, June 1871

 

 

“Hargate!” Ruthven shouted in Frank’s ear, “don’t you think we’d better run before it? It’s as much as Hancock can do to keep her head straight into the wind.”

“Yes,” Frank shouted back, “if it were not for the Goodwin Sands! The banks lie right across ahead of us.”

     Knowing only too well the bankweren’t evil reputation as a graveyard of shipping, Ruthven looked aghast but said nothing more, and for another hour he and Frank rowed their hardest. Then Hancock and Jones took the oars. Ruthven lay down and Frank steered. After another hour Frank was too exhausted to keep the boat into the wind. They were shipping several heavy seas and Ruthven was baling continuously, using the tin can that had held their fish bait.

    “Ruthven, we must let her run. Put out the other oar, we must watch our time. Row hard when I give the word.”

     The maneuver was safely accomplished and in a minute they were flying before the storm.

“Keep on rowing,” Frank said, “but take it easily. We must try and make for the tail of the sands. I can see the lightship.” But the wind refused to co-operate, changing to blow along the line of sands and pushing them away from the lightship. Already, far ahead, a gray light glimmered, marking where the sea was breaking over the dreaded shoal.

     “Sod it! It’s no use,” Ruthven shouted. “There’s no hope for us.”

All semblance of cheerful spirit had waned as the four boys contemplated their fate, cast into the violence of the breaking seas over the treacherous sands. Suddenly there was a flash of light ahead, followed directly afterward by the boom of a gun. Then a rocket soared up into the air.

    “There’s a vessel on the sands,” Frank exclaimed. “Let’s make for her. If we can get on board we’ll have a better chance than here.”

The boys again bent to their oars, and Frank tried to steer exactly for the spot from where the rocket had gone up. A moment later there was a second flash.

     “There she is,” he said. “I can see her now against the line of breakers. Take the oar again, Ruthven. We must get in under shelter of her lee.”

    In another minute or two they were within a hundred yards of the ship. She was a large vessel, and lay just at the edge of the broken water. The waves, as they struck her, flew high above her deck. As the rowing boat neared the stricken ship a bright blue light suddenly sprang up, followed by a faintly heard cheer.

    “They’ve seen us,” Frank told Ruthven. “But they must think we’re the lifeboat. What a disappointment for them! Now, steady, guys; prepare to pull her around the instant we’re under the stern. I’ll get as near as I dare.”

    Frank steered the skiff to within a few yards of the ship. Then Jones and Ruthven, who both had oars on the same side, rowed for their lives, every sinew strained, while Frank pushed with the steering oar. A minute later they lay in the comparatively still water under the stranded ship’s lee. Two ropes snaked down and the four boys speedily climbed on board.

    “We thought you was the lifeboat at first,” the captain shouted, as they reached the deck, “but, of course, they can’t be out here for a couple of hours yet.” He looked gloomily at his new passengers. “Which means, me lads, “you’ve only stretched yer lives a few minutes, for she’ll no hold together much longer.”

    The ship presented a pitiable appearance. Her masts had already gone, the bulwark to windward had been carried away, and the hull lay heeled over at a sharp angle, her deck to leeward being level with the raging water. The crew and passengers huddled down near the lee bulwarks, sheltered somewhat by the sharp slope of the deck from the force of the wind, but as each wave broke over the ship, tons of water cascaded over them.

    Suddenly there was a great crash, and the vessel parted amidships. “A few minutes will settle it now,” the captain barked stoically. “God help us all.”

     At this moment there was a shout to leeward, which was answered by yells of joy from those on board the wreck, for there, close alongside, lay the lifeboat, whose approach had been hidden by the listing hull. In a few minutes the fifteen crew, three passengers, and the four schoolboys were on board her.

     “Am I glad to see you, Frank Hargate,” the sailor who rowed one of the stroke oars shouted. It was the sailor they had hired the boat from. “I was up in the town and clean forgot you until it was dark. Then I ran down and found the boat hadn’t returned, so I got the crew together and we came out to look for you,” he gasped in the intervals between gusts of wind, “though we had little hope of finding you. It was just luck that we happened to be only half a mile off when the ship fired her first distress rocket, just as we’d given you up and decided to go back. We’re making for Ramsgate now. We’d never beat back to Deal in this weather. I don’t know as I ever saw it blow much harder.”

     Even with wind behind them it took two hours to reach Ramsgate, and the lads were soon put to bed at the small Kentish Sailorweren’t Home. A man was sent on horseback to Deal, to inform those there of the arrival of the lifeboat and of the rescue of the four boys.

     When Frank had not returned, Mrs. Hargate had gone down to the beach and there learned from the fishermen that it was impossible for anyone to reach shore in the teeth of such a storm. They told her that although the lifeboat had just put out in search of them, the chances of their being found were not good. She had long given up hope when the school headmaster, Mr Parker, himself knocked at her door to bring her the news of her son’s safe return to land.

Overcome by emotion, she staggered and the schoolteacher just managed to catch her before she fell in a faint. He got her to the sofa and seated, but she waved away his concerns for her health. “I shall be right as rain when I see Frank tomorrow,” she insisted when he offered to fetch out her doctor. It was with some misgivings that he left her in peace and returned to the school. She never moved from the couch, and when he returned, Frank found his mother still asleep there.

 

 

Frank and Hancock took the first train to Deal alone because Ruthven and Jones, too exhausted by their ordeal, had been ordered by the doctor to remain in bed for another twenty-four hours.

    The incident raised Frank to the status of school hero when the other three were unanimous in saying that it was his coolness and skill which alone kept up their spirits, and enabled them to keep the boat afloat during the gale, and to make the wreck in safety.

    Frank’s natural modesty took something of a beating amid his newfound popularity, which even extended to his naturalist pastime. In the general enthusiasm Frank’s hobby, which had previously found few followers, now became the school fad. The boys formed a field club, of which he was elected president, and long rambles in the country in search of insects and plants were frequently organized.

    However, his fame was overshadowed by a newsflash which electrified the whole civilized world—an obscure American journalist called Henry Morton Stanley had found Dr. David Livingstone, the famous explorer-missionary, who had disappeared in the unexplored depths of central Africa many, many months before. Livingstone’s wellbeing had been on everyone’s minds, fearful of what dreadful things may have happened to him. Now the world knew he was alive. Frank was thrilled when he read the account in the newspaper of Stanley’s amazing trek through the African jungles to find the Scottish explorer. He imagined doing the same thing, catching and cataloging immense quantities of strange and wonderful insects, birds, and small mammals on the way to rescue of some lost missionary.

   While many avid readers shuddered at Stanley’s description of the dark continent’s inhospitable interior, Frank found himself spellbound with wonder. “If only,” he thought, “I could go to Africa for myself. Now that would be a marvellous thing.”

    The countryside around Deal was nothing like Frank imagined Africa to be, but, he sighed, it would have to do and on Saturday afternoon he set out with Charlie Goodall, a younger boy who was one of his most devoted followers, acting as his “African” bearer-cum-porter for a long country walk. As Frank strode ahead in the lead with his blowgun, hacking aside imaginary parasitic creepers, Charlie struggled along in the explorer’s wake carrying all the bottles and tin boxes to hold their captured prey, and the large butterfly net. This was about a foot in depth, made of canvas, mounted on a stout brass rim and a strong wooden pole.

    They had passed through Eastry, a village four miles from Deal, when Frank exclaimed, “There’s a green hairstreak. The first I’ve  seen this year.”

    He approached the butterfly, sunning itself on the top of a thistle, cautiously, but as he prepared to strike, it suddenly flew off over a hedge. In a moment the boys had scrambled through a gap and were in full pursuit. The butterfly flitted here and there, sometimes allowing the hunters to approach within a few feet and then fluttering away again for fifty yards without stopping. The chase continued, the explorer and his porter paying no heed to where they were going, until a sudden shout startled them to halt.

     “You little buggers, how dare you run over my wheat!”

     Frank saw what, in his excitement, he had failed to notice, and looked back guiltily at the two trails they had trampled through the grain field, which reached to his knees. “I’m very sorry, sir,” he stammered. “I was so excited than I really didn’t see where I was going.”

    “Not see!” yelled the angry farmer, going beetroot red in the cheeks and neck. “I’ll break every bone in your bodies,” and he raised the heavy stick he was carrying.

Not unreasonably, Charlie Goodall began to cry.

     “I’ve  no right to trespass on your wheat, sir,” Frank said firmly, “but you’ve no right to strike us. My name’s Hargate, Frank Hargate, and you can easily find me at Parker’s School in Deal. Tell me what the damage is and I’ll pay for it.”

     “You’ll bloody well pay for it now,” shouted the farmer, as he advanced with his stick uplifted.

Frank slipped three pellets into his mouth. “Leave ush alone or it’ll be worsh for you,” he slurred either side of the clays as he put the blowgun to his lips.

     The farmer took two more threatening steps forward, and Frank sent a bullet with all his force, and with so true an aim that he struck the farmer on the knuckles. It was a sharp blow and the farmer, with a cry of pain and surprise, dropped his weapon.

     “Don’t come a step nearer!” Frank warned, speaking more easily around two pellets. “If you do, I’ll aim at your eye next time,” and he pointed the tube at the enraged farmer’s face.

     “I’ll have the law on you, you young hoodlum. I’ll make your backside smart for this.”

     “You can do as you like about that,” Frank retorted. “I fired in self defense and let you off easily. Come on, Charlie, wipe your eyes and let’s get out of this.”

     In a few minutes they were again on the road, and it seemed the farmer was making no attempt to chase them. They walked silently along, Frank angry with himself at his carelessness in running over grown crops. He wondered how he could pay the fine without having to ask his mother. It occurred to him that his father had earned extra money selling his stuffed creatures and thought he might do the same—more modestly—at a shop in the town. He had seen stuffed birds in its window, which were, he was sure, inferior to his own both in execution and naturalism.

     After walking a few hundred paces along the road they met a pretty little girl of seven or eight years old strolling along alone, humming cheerfully to herself. Frank, engrossed in working out how many cases of stuffed birds he had, scarcely spared her a glance when she waved at them. But at that moment he heard a ruckus in the distance and saw some men shouting and running along the road toward them. For an instant he thought that the farmer had sent some of his men to stop them, but quickly dismissed the idea, as they were coming from the opposite direction. They were lost from sight as they ran into a dip in the road and, as they vanished, something else appeared on the road on the near side of the hollow.

     “It’s a dog!” cried Charlie with some alarm at its size. “It’s a really big dog…”

     Frank muttered, “What are they shouting at?”

The dog was within fifty yards of them when the men reappeared. Frank could now make out what the words.

     “Mad dog! Mad dog!”

     Frank was galvanized into action. “Christ, Charlie, get through the hedge, quick. I’ll help you over, never mind the thorns.” The hedgerow was low and well trimmed, and Frank, bundling his young porter over, threw himself across, struggled to his feet, and peered over its top. The dog was within ten yards of them and Frank could see immediately what the alarm was about.

    It was a large crossbreed, somewhere between a mastiff and a bulldog. Its rough hair bristled. The animal loped along with its head down, foam churning from its lips. Frank looked the other way and gave a shout. Twenty yards off, the little girl had stopped in the middle of the road and turned to see who was causing the fuss. She seemed oblivious to any danger and watched the distant men, not the advancing dog.

     Frank placed the blowgun to his mouth, and in a moment his pellet struck the animal smartly on the side of the head. It gave a short yelp and paused. Another shot struck it, and then Frank, snatching the butterfly net from Charlie, threw himself back over the hedge and placed himself between the child and the ravening animal. It shook its head, flecks of foam flying in all directions and then, with a savage growl, rushed at him.

    Frank stood perfectly cool and, as the dog powered forward, thrust the net over its onrushing head. The net’s rim was just large enough to allow its head in. Frank sprang forward and twisted around behind the dog, keeping a strain on the handle, which locked the net tightly around its neck. The massive beast gave a furious flurry of snarling barks and his powerful muscles bunched as he struggled to get away, dragging Frank behind him. Then he stopped, backed, and tried to withdraw his head from the restraint. Frank held on grimly, digging his heels into the road’s surface and managed to keep the net in place long enough until the men, who were armed with pitchforks, ran up and speedily dispatched the unfortunate beast.

    “Tha’s bravely done, son,” one of them said; “and you’ve saved missy’s life surely. The savage brute rushes into the yard and bites a young colt and a heifer, and then, as we comes running out with forks, he takes to the road again. We chases him along, not knowing who we might meet, and it give us a rare turn when we see the master’s Bessy standing alone in the road, wi’ nowt between her and the beast. Where’ve you been, Bessy?”

     “I’ve  been to auntie’s,” she said, “and she gave me some strawberries and cream, and it’s wicked of you to kill the poor doggie.”

     “Her aunt’s farm lies next to our employer’s,” the man explained, “and little miss often goes over there. The dog was mad, missy, and if it weren’t for this young gen’leman here, it would have killed you as safe as eggs. Won’t you come back to the farm, sir? The farmer and his wife would be main glad to thank you for having saved their daughter’s life.”

     “Thanks, but no. We’re late and must be getting back. I’m glad I happened to be here at the time.” So saying, Frank waved a cheery farewell and strode off, carelessly tossing the net over his shoulder for Charlie, still encumbered by the naturalist’s baggage, to catch, and headed in the direction of Deal.

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