The Beacon and the Coward26 min read
Danville stared at his hands, only a few shades darker than the walnut wood of the desk. Grease and oil were thick under short chewed fingernails. His gaze strayed to the torn CSA battle flag nailed to the wall. It was riddled with holes and stained with gunpowder, smoke, and blood, a grisly trophy.
“I trust you.” The words came softly from the broad-shouldered lighthouse keeper seated across from Danville. His presence filled the room. Keeper Etheridge was a large man made even larger by the leather, metal, and gear additions that crisscrossed his chest to hold the massive artificial arm in place.
None of that was visible under the royal blue Revenue Cutter Officer’s jacket, but in the silence of the room, Danville heard the faint whirrs and clicks. It made him feel even more of an outsider. This time, it had taken only six months before he had been found out.
Etheridge closed the file in front of him and let his metal hand rest on top of it. “Explain yourself, Surfman.”
Danville bowed his head at Etheridge’s use of his rank. Stamped on the file was the seal of the United States Army. That file, like a curse, like his shame, followed him. He would lose everything. Again. “I’m a coward.”
Etheridge was silent; his dark face expressionless. In the next room, the other men who crewed the station laughed over a game of cards. The courier sat in a corner, puffing on a pipe, waiting for the foul weather to abate before continuing his mail run. The bitter scent of his tobacco permeated the whole commons area and crept into the office. Even though only a lowly private, he wouldn’t deign to play with the station’s Algerine machine-men.
Danville risked a glance up to find Etheridge staring at him.
“Tell me why.”
Danville fought to get the words out. “I couldn’t do it,” he whispered. “I didn’t charge with my unit. I wasn’t a part of the victory at Gettysburg. When the guns were firing and the incendiaries falling…” Danville swallowed, the memory left his mouth dry. “Iron Flyers, tap-gunners raining lead from the sky, I-I-I froze.”
Etheridge shifted, leaning forward, both elbows on the desk. “And?”
“And nothing.” Danville spat the words out. “Them gray-back rebels bested me.” His words flowed faster and angrier. “I saw my best friend, Jimmy, disintegrate in a hail of bullets. Our flag fell, I couldn’t bring myself to grab it. When the time came to be a man, I cried like a boy.”
Danville threw his arm out in an all-encompassing gesture. “This station is filled with men, heroes who battled for the Union. Men who sacrificed…” Danville trailed off. Not everyone had entered service voluntarily. This crew of colored men had been experimented on, treated as little better than animals. Etheridge himself was an example of how, in the Free Territory of New Orleans, Algerine machinery had been crafted onto living men.
The keeper gestured for Danville to continue.
Danville licked his lips. “Irving, Bowser, Meekins, they all tell stories about the war and offensives and camaraderie, thinking we’re brothers-in-arms. We bunk together and eat together and work together, but I’m not like them.”
Etheridge clasped his hands together, the metal digits interspersed with flesh. Danville refused to look up, imagining the pity and disgust on his superior’s face.
“I lied. I lied about who I am and what I am. I wanted a home. And by becoming a surfman, because I was a ‘natural’ man and could swim, I had a chance at that.” Danville took a deep breath. He recited from memory. “‘A man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to the things needed to be done.’ But I couldn’t.”
Etheridge sat back in the chair, his expression thoughtful.
“A man has no worth—”
Etheridge held up a hand, halting Danville. “What would you have me do?”
Danville hesitated. “Do the other men know?”
“I doubt the Army courier will be circumspect, and people will wonder why he’s here.”
“And this station is already under scrutiny.”
“Some are not keen to see a lighthouse full of colored men in this service. Some would see me—us, fail. The war left a lot of open wounds.”
Danville let his hands fall to his side. “Then there’s nothing left to do. I’ll go.” He turned to leave, his steps leaden.
“War is not the only measure of a man.”
Danville glanced back, “Sir?”
Etheridge stood and stepped around the desk. “You’ve worked hard for your place here.” He held out his hand, the flesh-and-blood one, to shake, “I trust you.”
Danville choked up. He stared at the hand, at what it meant. It was too much. He did the one thing he knew he did best. He ran. “I’m sorry.”
After throwing his meager possessions into his kit, Danville left the station and trudged in piercing rain over to the lighthouse. The storm matched his own inner turmoil, but it was quiet in the tower. The thunder only faintly sounded through the rough stone walls. He didn’t want to talk to the men. He wanted to slip away into the night, but he needed something, some way to say his own goodbye.
He climbed the ladder up into the glass tower room, which was crowded with a large central Fresnel lens and copper-core lantern. The rotten-egg smell of the sulphorous additive filled his nose. The chemical changed the gas fire’s glow from its natural greenish tint to a muted red so as not to interfere with the crews’ night vision. It was warm inside the tower; outside the wind howled and rain pounded against the glass, like some mythical sea monster demanding entrance.
Danville sighed. He would miss this, the solitude, the beauty. He had betrayed it with his lies. He paused when he saw Meekins on duty. The young man’s slight frame and bald, scarred head were unmistakable.
After turning to see who had climbed up into the tower, Meekin’s mechanical eye glowed red and blinked once. “Run home, coward.” Meekins turned his back, his gaze returning to the ocean. “You’re an offense to every man who ever served.”
Danville shouldn’t have expected any more, but it still hurt. Meekins was his bunkmate and friend. He had thought, after their weeks of training and working together… Danville tried to shake the melancholy. Meekins was right; he didn’t deserve to be here.
Danville closed his eyes and listened to all the sounds. He’d walk the perimeter, just one last time. Turning smartly, he strode with purpose, his step a clear measured cadence. He circled the room, his gaze outward, into the dark where the ocean shrieked and shivered, mountainous waves crashed against the lighthouse rocks.
Lightning flashed over the swirling waters and then was gone, leaving utter darkness. The thunder crashed like howitzers of battle but different, louder and more demanding, as if the sky itself had declared war on the water. Danville shuddered as a frisson of fear and anticipation tangled in his stomach. It was the same, and yet different.
Was that a light? Out in the water? He leaned closer to the glass.
“You see something?” Meekins was right beside him.
Danville pointed. “Out there, a light.”
Meekins’s eye flickered as he focused. His mechanical vision was poor compared to most ‘natural’ men’s. The technology still wasn’t strong enough to replicate a human eye. Instead, Meekins saw the world in colors relating to heat—the sun bright white, men and women different shades of orange and red. “Got her. Three degrees off the point.”
Danville snatched a pair of field glasses from where they hung and squinted through them. He could barely make out the outline of a ship. “She’s a big ’un, sails and double-paddles.”
“A few more minutes and she’ll be on the reef.” With the extra weight of diesel engines and the reinforcement of the hull needed to carry them, there was no way the ship could clear shoals. There was a pause. “Lord Almighty.”
Danville lowered the glasses. “What?”
Hot…that meant she carried a lot of passengers. “How many?”
Meekins’s eye whirred, irising as he tried to estimate the number from the glow of warm bodies aboard. “Too far to tell. But either way, they’re in trouble.”
“I’ll sound the alarm.” Danville ran to the torch and turned the valve to bleed some of the pressurized gas into the alarm. Immediately, the klaxon assaulted his ears. The sound carried out across the tiny island. There was a reason the men had nicknamed the alarm “Shrieker.”
He turned to find Meekins glaring at him with his one human eye. Danville stepped back as if he’d been slapped. He’d forgotten. He wasn’t a surfman anymore. He was disgraced.
“I-I-I’ll just go tell the Keeper.” Danville stammered, backing toward the ladder. He grabbed the rails and slid down, the metal hot on his hands and boots from the speed of his descent. Above, he could hear Meekins tapping coordinates into the communications wire.
Upon reaching the bottom, Danville slammed open the door and raced out into the storm. The wind whipped about his body, threatening to knock him over. Even in the few minutes he had been in the tower, the storm had increased in ferocity. The rain came from every direction at once.
Danville ran toward the station house, his leather boots splashing in ankle-deep puddles. It was less than twenty yards away, but by the time he crashed through the front door, he was completely soaked from the deluge.
There was similar chaos inside as men dressed in oilskins and grabbed lines and pulleys, lifevests, and oars. The closed space was thick with the smell of heavy oil and grease. Pruden and Collins were smearing it over their mechanical body parts in an attempt to keep the water and sand out. The other three men had already seen to protecting their own sensitive gears and moving parts. During a rescue, none of them could risk having a limb lock up.
Above it all, Keeper Etheridge barked out orders. He called for readying of the Francis boat and strode amongst the men as they filed toward the boathouse.
Upon seeing Danville, Etheridge gestured him over. “We’ll need Meekins to guide us once we’re on the beach. You’re partnered with him. Get your slicker and lifevest.”
A jab of panic cored itself into Danville’s heart. He wanted to say no, that Meekins wanted nothing to do with him. That none of the men did. He couldn’t be trusted. And what if he failed again? Just like during the war. And more of his friends would die because of his cowardice.
But all Danville said aloud was, “Yes, sir,” and shrugged into his vest and oilskins. He glanced back up to the tower and prayed that he would make it through the next few hours without further dishonoring himself or the service.
Danville was only half a step behind the Keeper into the boathouse.
As if noting his hesitation, Etheridge said, “You ain’t going to run, Danville.”
Danville ducked his head and, jaw set, followed Etheridge into the boathouse. The crew stood in position at the wheels of the great wagon that would haul the rescue boat to the water. The two men at the fore, Irving and Bowser, were older, with broad shoulders and, like the keeper, had arms of gears and metal corded with wire sinew. Both also had full steam piston-powered legs. Shaped like a horse’s rear limbs, they now were covered in a thick layer of grease. The men were dockriders who had the massive mechanical power required to pull the heavily laden wagon and man the breeches buoy to pull people to shore. Because of the sheer weight, though, neither could swim. Pruden and Collins, with fewer replacement parts, were at the rear of the wagon to push, while Etheridge guided the wagon from the front. Meekins jogged out in front and took up point. And then there was him, Surfman Danville, the team’s swimmer. Every man contributed to the crew, and together their job was to save as many souls as possible on their small strip of coast, the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
“Move out!” Etheridge shouted. Danville and Meekins threw open the large double doors. Gale winds careened into the boathouse, knocking tools from the walls and kicking up the lighter dry sand. Icy needles of rain hit them as they jogged out onto the path. The crew pushed on out of the boat house and down to the dock. Within minutes, the wagon bogged down. The men cursed and pulled until the wagon was free, and they continued toward the water only to become stuck again less than fifty yards from the beach.
“Portage!” Etheridge yelled, his booming voice only faintly audible above the wind.
In synchronized motion, the men lifted the boat up over their heads. They wavered as the wind caught its profile but steadied as the mechanicals and enhancements added weight and stability. No ordinary men would have managed it. Danville and Meekins gathered up as many of the other rescue items as each man could carry. Danville didn’t have the reinforcements that would allow his body to bear more weight, and Meekins’s eye was his only Algerine part.
Heavy rope wrapped across his torso and with two oars under his arms, Danville filed in behind as they once again jogged toward the surf, Etheridge still shouting cadence. Meekins was barely visible in front of him, his head turning this way and that as he scanned the sea.
The sucking sand dragged them down and slowed their pace as they entered the ocean. Etheridge called a halt, and the men reversed the boat and set it in the water. Danville and Meekins tossed the rope and oars into the hull as another bolt of lightning split the sky and thunder rumbled around them.
Etheridge frowned. The beacon from the station glanced off the clouds and rain rather than cutting through the darkness. “Meekins?”
“I got ’er, Keeper!” Meekins shouted.
“Then oars up!” Etheridge commanded.
Danville clambered into the ship next to Meekins while Irving and Bowser kept the boat from rocking, their Algerine legs giving them greater stability. They were joined by Pruden, Collins, and finally Etheridge. Meekins’s eye gleamed red at the night.
“Ship sighted! Go!”
The dockriders pushed out hard, their enhanced strength giving the boat speed. The crew in the boat dipped oars into the frothing spray. Water rushed over the sides as the tiny boat rose and fell, leaping and dropping in the high surf. Meekins continued to shout directions.
Danville wiped an already wet hand over his face. He couldn’t see anything, just more rain and sea and wind. The small boat started to spin and tip, forcing the men to frantically rebalance it to stay afloat.
“We’re not going to make it out there.”
“We’re not giving up,” growled the keeper. Danville startled at Etheridge’s voice coming from right behind him. He hadn’t thought anyone could hear him above the thunder and roar of the ocean and the splash of oars fighting the tide.
“That’s not what I—” Danville didn’t finish the sentence. With a shudder, the entire boat lifted and canted to port, throwing them all from their seats and into the cold, roiling sea.
Water filled Danville’s nose and ears and eyes. He instinctively held his breath, but it exploded from him as the heavy boat slammed down on his shoulder and drove him further under. Danville scrambled for the surface and burst through, gasping for air. His collarbone throbbed as he swam toward the dim shape of the overturned boat. A strong hand grabbed his and pulled him forward.
“Danville?” It was Etheridge, whose mechanical fingers clung to the wood of the boat.
“Thank you,” Danville choked.
“Report!” Etheridge’s shout was gunshot-quick. Men counted off. Danville. Collins. Pruden.
Danville heard the worried tone from Etheridge. Meekins had the fewest mechanical replacements of all the men, but his range of motion was limited by war injuries and countless surgeries. In this storm that could be a death sentence.
“Meekins! You out there?” Etheridge began cursing under his breath.
Danville scanned the water, looking into an abyss of rain, thunder, and lightning. There was another flash and Danville shook himself free, kicking forward with all his strength.
“What the hell—” Etheridge yelled.
Danville ignored him and dove toward a hint of red glow in the water just to starboard. He swam down, farther and farther. Buffeted by the water, he kicked harder and reached out, more from instinct than from anything else. Feeling cloth, he grabbed hold. His lungs burned. He hadn’t taken a deep enough breath before submerging himself.
Reversing and praying that in all the tumbling water he had not confused up from down, he kicked for the surface. The extra weight dragged at him and forced him to double his efforts, his other hand coming down to also grasp at the cloth. Meekins was heavy, and he wasn’t swimming.
Danville surfaced less than three feet from the boat, its hull a grey shadow bobbing up and down on the surf.
“There!” Etheridge shouted, and a mechanical claw grabbed Meekins’ collar, dragging him and Danville to the boat.
Danville gasped and coughed as he and their rescuer passed the unconscious Meekins to Etheridge.
“We’re not out yet,” Etheridge growled. “Kick, men!”
Danville hung on to the lifeboat and kicked, unsure if they were even heading the correct direction, but trusting in the keeper. Overhead, the lighthouse’s red beacon continued to shine against the clouds.
“That’s it. Keep going.”
Danville tried to ignore the sounds next to him of Etheridge trying to revive Meekins. It was difficult enough to stay above water. Eventually, he felt sand brush the bottom of his feet. The boat jerked forward as the dockriders grabbed hold and dragged it and the exhausted crew to the shallows.
They all collapsed on the shore just out of reach of the grasping surf. A small reprieve, even though rain still cascaded from the heavens. Seconds later, an earth-shattering groan and crash that carried even over the sound of the storm was heard. Far out in the shoals, the large ship was grinding onto the reef.
“Sweet Jesus,” whispered one of the men.
Danville stood shakily. “We’ve got to get the Hurley cannon. Maybe a breeches buoy will get some of the passengers off.”
One of the dockriders, Irving, took off running toward the boathouse, the muck sucking at every step he took. Because of so many enhancements to his body, all four limbs, it was ironic that the man had been hired by the Revenue Cutter and Lifesaving Service, but those same enhancements allowed him to carry the small cannon back down to the beach by himself.
“Ready the rope and pulleys,” Etheridge ordered. “We’ve not much time.” Next to him Meekins coughed and sputtered. “Danville, help him up. We need a bearing.”
Meekins was slight, not more than a boy. Danville half carried him down the beach. “What do you see?”
Meekins’s red eye flickered and he shook his head, sending water flying. “Tough…” he coughed. “Tough to tell. Two degrees west, she’s on the shoal.” His voice was salt-water coarse.
Danville shouted the coordinates.
Between flashes of lighting, Danville saw Irving staggering back down the path, cannon heavy in his arms. The rest of the crew met him at a rock promontory further up the beach. Danville continued to hold Meekins up. The younger man’s gaze was trained on the trapped ship, but Danville watched Etheridge load the harpoon. The crew steadied the iron cannon and set the coordinates. Firing a line out to a ship was difficult enough in good weather, but with the wind so high and visibility so poor….
Danville snapped around at a curse from Meekins. “She’s not secure. She’s rising and falling with the tide.”
“Dammit.” Danville let go of Meekins. The younger man remained standing, but wobbled.
Danville raced toward the cannon. If the ship wasn’t—steady—“Wait, hold fire! Hold!” Danville screamed, waving his arms, but his words were snatched away by the wind. He felt rather than saw the whoosh of air as the cannon’s air blast sent the harpoon into the night. “She’s not secure! Raise the sights, raise her!”
It was too late. The harpoon sailed into the blackness. As the crew reeled it in, the rope didn’t pull taut. They’d missed. The keeper shouted, “Again!”
The men reeled faster. Danville joined them.
Etheridge shook his head. He cupped his hands to his mouth and leaned toward Danville. “Think you can swim it?”
Danville stared out into the crashing waves, feeling sick to his stomach. “I can try.”
Etheridge paused and was quiet for a second, then he held out a hand. Danville grasped it. They gazed at each other eye to eye for a moment, then Etheridge shook it. “Good man. Now get down to the shore. We’ll try a couple more times, but have Meekins spot you on the line.” He looked out over the water. “We’re running out of time.”
Danville followed his gaze, then nodded and took off at a run toward Meekins, peeling off clothing as he went. Except for his flotation vest, Danville couldn’t afford to be encumbered. Meekins was waiting, rope harness at the ready. They’d done this drill a hundred times, but somehow this seemed more…final. Danville swallowed.
Meekins tied off the rope, and they waded into the frigid water in silence.
“You saved my life. Thank you,” Meekins said softly.
They walked out until it was mid-thigh, where Meekins could stay on his feet. He braced himself. “You’re a better surfman than any of us. Now get out there.”
Danville steeled himself, took a deep breath, and dove in. His arms moved in powerful strokes, pushing him through the twisting water. He plunged under the waves and came up for air on the other side, working to keep his breathing steady and his gaze on the single point ahead, the silhouette of the ship.
Danville heard a muffled boom from the shore. The Hurley. The air pressure hadn’t been enough and, in desperation, the crew had moved to gunpowder.
The surging waves beat at him like hammers, and though he tried to keep his breathing even, he choked on salt water and caught himself struggling to keep enough air in his lungs. He broke the surface and searched for the ship. Nothing. He tread water desperately and turned to look for the shore, but it, too, had been swallowed by the darkness. There was no going back.
Danville’s heart constricted in his chest. Everywhere he looked was just surf and foam and darkness. The lighthouse’s red beacon flashed, its light dim, but still visible. Danville ducked his head. Pushing down the crushing fear, he focused on swimming. Forward.
It seemed like hours later when Danville’s hand found rough wood. He yelped as his knuckles scraped against barnacles. Ignoring the pain, he felt his way to the ship’s anchor chain. He used his carabiner and clockwork ascender to help pull him up the slick metal toward the deck. All the while, he shouted for the ship’s crew.
He climbed over the rail and heard calls of “God bless!” and “Praise be!” He leaned against the side and coughed the salt water from his lungs while the crew untied the trailing rope from his life vest and hauled it toward the mast. Danville saw no other rope, the Hurley cannon’s bolt hadn’t reached them. He watched one of the sailors climb the mast to tie off the rope to the yardarm.
The voices of angry and frightened passengers rose around him. It took only a moment for him to discern the cause—his skin color. He had almost forgotten. He stood straight and concentrated on walking steadily toward a white-bearded man wearing a captain’s coat and a worried expression. “Surfman Danville, Captain. You and your passengers will have to free-slide.” His voice croaked. If the breeches buoy hadn’t made it, they’d have to use a rope harness and one by one, slide down the line to shore.
The captain waited a long minute, staring him up and down, and then nodded.
“How many?” Danville feared the answer. Meekins had said the ship was hot.
“Will it hold?” the captain asked, his gaze earnest.
Danville swallowed and struggled for balance as the ship lurched on the reef, tipping to port. He grabbed the rail and fought a sinking feeling in his stomach. People fell and slid and screamed.
“Hold fast!” he yelled. “Hold fast!”
The sounds of panic gradually subsided. Thank God no one had fallen overboard. Danville straightened, feeling all eyes on him. “All right, let’s get ready to get you folks to shore.” He was grateful he sounded more confident than he felt.
He pointed to a couple of sailors. “You and you, start knotting rope harnesses. The rest of you line up and get ready. It’s a long slide.” There was a general shuffling, but none of the sailors moved. Even in the midst of a life-and-death crisis, the world still took note of the distinction between Colored and White.
Danville gritted his teeth and looked to the ship’s captain, who nodded. “You heard the surfman!”
They were just hoisting up the first passenger, a lithe young woman, when there was an ominous cracking sound.
Danville glanced up. “Everyone, off the mast!”
He’d just gotten the words out when the cracking grew even louder than the thunder, and the huge mast split and started to topple. Men fell screaming from the rigging, as did the young woman, to sprawl broken on the deck.
Now free, it slithered across the deck like a living thing. It rushed toward the edge of the ship. Danville raced in pursuit, throwing himself toward it before it could vanish over the side. His palm connected with the raw hemp. He wrapped his fingers around it, but the rope didn’t stop. With the force of water and momentum, it dragged him across the deck. He yelped as the rough wood dug splinters into his bare skin. His legs flailed as he struggled to stop until, with a teeth-jarring jolt, he slammed into the guard rail. Pain blossomed in his shoulder and ribs. It was too much, and the line slipped from numb fingers.
Danville wanted to cry. People screamed and ran and clutched at each other. Panic and desperation were rising. Struggling upright, Danville refused to look at himself. His skin burned from the salt spray, and he was sure the slick wetness on his legs and feet was not seawater. He limped toward the captain. Without the line, there was no way to get these people to land, and the Hurley wasn’t working. Danville would have to swim another line back to the shore.
“No! No, you can’t leave us! My daughter, please save my daughter!” The shouting woman was hysterical, her hair plastered to her head. Half-dragged behind her was a girl aged no more than four or five. Danville noticed them at the periphery of his vision. They faded into the milling crowd on the deck of the ship as sailors pulled her back. His focus was on the shore, on the tower beacon. From its light, he estimated where Etheridge and the rest of the rescue station crew would be on the beach.
He took several deep breaths, and winced at the pain. He shook out his shoulders. He could do this. He would do this. He looked over the side at the water, which swirled menacingly. His knees shook. Ignoring them, he turned to the captain. “Ready the line.”
The captain pulled out the rope and tied it to the loop on Danville’s life vest. It wasn’t a very thick line, but as it extended further and further from the ship, it would grow heavier. “Line is ready.” He offered Danville a brisk salute.
Danville blinked as the world stopped for a second. No white man had ever saluted him. He returned the gesture. “Surfman over!” he called. With a short run, he leapt the rail and dove from the side of the ship. That wasn’t regulation, but if he didn’t jump, Danville wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to re-enter the water.
The water hit hard and cold. Danville surfaced, disoriented for a moment before the deep red glow from the beacon once again showed him the way. He corrected his bearing and paddled for the beach. The storm’s ferocity had lulled, but the sea was still rough enough to drown a man if he wasn’t careful. At least he had a chance.
Behind him, screaming erupted, high feminine shrieks. Danville heard a splash in the water nearby. What in God’s name? If it was at all possible, the shouting increased in pitch, and the sailors joined in. They were exhorting him to do…something.
A flurry of squeals and wails near him didn’t fit with the sounds of the storm. He caught a glimpse of pink fabric, of golden locks. Dear Lord, the woman had thrown her daughter overboard! Danville kicked hard and managed get close enough to wrap an arm around the girl, who flailed and screamed. He swallowed saltwater and choked, going under. The girl’s frantic motions doubled. She would drown them both. Cuts and scratches opened up on his arms and chest as the girl scratched and bit, desperate for air.
Finally breaking the surface, Danville wrestled with the girl as he fought to keep them afloat and headed toward the beach. Her heavy skirts weighed them both down. He didn’t want to die. He wasn’t ready. Fear rose, choking and raw in his throat like sick bile.
Let her go. Just let her go. No one would blame him.
“Stop it!” he hissed. Any other words were drowned out by water rushing down his throat.
No! He couldn’t give up. Not this time. Rolling on to his side, one arm still gripping the girl, Danville kicked and swam. His free arm swung in wide strokes, pulling them forward, dragging them closer and closer to shore.
It wasn’t smooth or easy. The waves knocked them up and down and sideways. The salt burned his skin and the water beat at them mercilessly, but Danville kept his gaze on the beacon, its red glow his guide.
His legs burned and his shoulders ached from the motion of stroke after stroke. There was no thought of the ship or the storm or the rescue. Even the girl was gone from his senses though she weighed heavily in his arms, her movements weak. It was just the next arm stroke, the next kick, and the next gasp of air.
He felt a brief moment of relief as his feet touched down on the sandy bottom before another wave buffeted him, knocking him under. He struggled and kicked his legs to bring them both to the surface one more time. Perhaps the last time. He was tiring, and the storm had regained its earlier fury. Had it been hours? Or was it a few minutes? Or days? Years?
Danville found the air; the girl’s renewed screaming and choking sounds filled his ears, even louder than the storm. She clawed at him, her tiny hands frantic. They weren’t going to make it. Another wave crashed over them, and he went under again, but only for a second. An iron hand gripped his bicep and yanked him and the girl up and out of the water. He yelped at the force. A warm slickness trickled down his arm as a second limb, this one warm flesh, wound around his waist, pulled him and his human cargo upright.
“I got you.” The voice was gruff, a low rumble. Lightning cracked, and for a moment Danville could see his superior’s face. A second body brushed against Danville on his other side, and a metal hand gripped his other arm, helping to hold him aloft. He recognized Irving, only his head above water. “You just hang on to that lil’ girl.”
It was more difficult than the words indicated. The child was terrified, cold, and half drowned. She screamed and struggled in Danville’s arms. He wrapped his arms around her and murmured soothing words he was sure she wouldn’t hear. She was alive, and that was all that mattered.
Irving’s mechanical stride churned up as much sand and water as the storm itself, but his sure footing and powerful piston legs added additional momentum to their walk, standing firm against the waves that threatened to suck them back out to the deeper water. As they reached the shallows, Meekins splashed out to meet them and released the line from Danville’s vest.
Danville was dragged out of the foaming waters. His stomach cramped and he retched. Salt water burned his throat. A heavy hand clapped him on the back, causing him to gag and cough again.
“Good work.” It was Etheridge.
Danville gasped and spat water. He nodded weakly.
“Catch your breath. We’ve got this.” Etheridge strode toward the winch embedded into the stone promontory further up the beach, signaling the men.
Danville watched, exhausted, as the crew attached the rope and winched it taut. A few men waded into the water as far as they dared to catch incoming passengers. Even with the whipping wind and blinding rain, the team worked with amazing precision as, one by one, they helped passengers off of the ship, but it was too slow. They all heard the groaning of the ship as she was brutally beaten by the storm and dragged on the reef.
“We won’t get them off fast enough,” Danville whispered. “She’s going to break up. Slow, but fast enough that we won’t get them all.”
As if she heard, the ship responded with another groan and crack of timber.
“And there’s nothing we can do,” Meekins finished. His red eye was the only light on their part of the beach. Further up the shore, though, there was a string of dim lanterns. A trail of too few passengers trudged through the muck to the station.
Danville leapt to his feet as a thought struck him. “Maybe not!” He raced up the beach, his lungs still burning from his earlier swims.
Etheridge turned around, a frown on his face and weary disappointment in his eyes. He knew they were fighting a losing battle.
Danville saluted. “I have an idea.” He outlined his plan, and a slow smile spread across Etheridge’s face.
“They’re ready!” Meekins yelled. The winds had picked up again, making it harder to hear; harder to maneuver. No more passengers could slide down the rope line, but the winds would help with Danville’s plan. The lighthouse blinked a slow signal out to the ship. Meekins read the response from the ship, her bright yellow flares arcing up into the cloud-filled sky. The crew understood.
The buoy line was no longer winched to the promontory. Instead it was slack, held in place by the crewmen of the station, who stood lined up, their faces grim.
“We can do this. I know we can,” Danville said.
Etheridge’s deep voice boomed. “All right men, heave!”
With an audible mass exhalation of air, eight men gripped the rope and leaned back. The rope snapped taut.
Metal limbs strained. Danville gritted his teeth and stepped into the line of men. Number seven. He didn’t have any Algerine mechanical parts, but he still could help. The line of men pulled and took a step back, then another.
“She’s moving!” Danville threw himself into the task. His muscles strained. “Heave!”
“We’ll pull the whole goddammned ship in to shallow water if we have to!” Etheridge sounded fierce, challenging the whole ocean himself.
He couldn’t see it from the shore, but Danville could picture the passengers and crew throwing everything overboard to lighten the ship. They would take apart everything inside so she’d float just enough, be just light enough for them to get her over the reef. They had to get her closer to shore to give them a fighting chance to live past this night.
Danville strained, his muscles aching as he attempted to keep up with the rest of the crew’s enhanced bodies. The men moved backwards, inch by terrible inch. Far out in the water, the ship screamed as her keel dragged up and over the shoal. The bottom of her ripped and tore, but she moved closer.
The red light of the lighthouse cut across the bay, its glow growing fainter and fainter as dawn brightened the sky. The clouds had gone, and almost no trace of the storm remained. Summer squalls such as those were common in the Carolinas.
Strewn across the sand like driftwood from a wreck lay the crew, panting, exhausted, but jubilant. On the beach in front of them, tipped portside like a drunken edifice, rested the two-paddled ocean-going ship. Men and women struggled from her broken form, cheering and praying thanks for their deliverance. The crewmen stirred and made their way to help the survivors back to the station.
Danville watched from farther down the beach, feeling like an outsider once again. His muscles burned, and his lungs pained him with every breath, but he couldn’t help the smile that quirked up the corners of his lips. He dusted the stubborn sand that stuck to his damp body and shivered in the early morning chill.
The whirr of machinery approached. It was the keeper. Etheridge looked years older, and his clockwork arm ground and whined. Sand and salt water clogged the machinery. Danville’s elation disappeared. He’d forgotten. He swallowed, feeling gritty tears.
Etheridge stood beside him and stared at the view—lighthouse, beach, ship, rescued passengers. “To the things needed to be done…” he murmured. Straightening, he cast a sideways glance at Danville and spoke brusquely. “It’s a beautiful morning. I’m going home.” Not waiting for any response, he began walking back to the station.
Danville followed, his gaze on the lighthouse tower, its red glow now completely extinguished in the new dawn. “So am I.”