Trial by Tempest

HOWARD RIGSBY July 1 1950

Trial by Tempest

HOWARD RIGSBY July 1 1950

Trial by Tempest

Helpless on a pitching raft, two men and a girl witnessed a more horrible thing than the storm that raged around them — the shame of a man stripped of honor before their eyes

HOWARD RIGSBY

THE telephone woke me at 11.30 a.m. and I could tell by the dust outside my window that the wind was blowing from the northwest. I work nights on the desk at the Mountainmere Hotel and I recognized this fellow as soon as he told me his name. I had registered him in the night before and his girl and her mother too. On my trick I don’t get to bed until 8 in the morning and I was, to put it mildly, annoyed when I picked up the receiver.

“It’s no day to fish, Mr. Wilson,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“It’ll be windy over there at the lake, too,” I told him. “You wouldn’t enjoy it in the wind. My boat’s only a 14-footer.”

He was silent a minute. “You mean you’re scared?” he asked me then.

It sounded so funny, the way he said it. I listened to the wind howling through the crack in my window for a minute, then I had to laugh. “Okay,” I said. I promised to meet him over at the boat landing at two o’clock.

At two o’clock I was squatting in the stem of the boat pouring gas into the outboard when they came along the dock. I glanced up and saw a man and a girl in shorts and at first I didn’t recognize her —or the fellow with her either. For a minute I just stared, letting the gas slop over. She was just about the nicest-looking girl I had ever seen. She had black hair and brown eyes that sparkled at you and her figure was one of those breathtaking affairs that makes you wonder why nature is so stingy handing them out. Then she smiled at me and I realized that I had seen her—or at least her face—before. I stopped pouring gas all over everything and stowed the can away.

Wilson, a big pleasant-looking guy in his early thirties, raised a hand in greeting. He had on a jockey cap, a Hawaiian shirt, a pair of shorts and sport shoes. “Hello, sailor,” he said. “What happened to the hurricane?”

“So I was wrong,” I agreed. I smiled at his girl. “Ready to cast off?” he asked.

“We’ll need bait,” I told him. I came forward and handed him up the bucket and the mesh container. “They sell it down there at the end of the landing.” I put out my hand and helped the girl to a seat in the bow.

“You look kind of warm,” she said.

“Excuse me,” I said. I stripped off the shirt, then the sweater. By now the sweat was dripping from the end of my nose.

“Well, it was blowing in town,” she said. “When we left it was blowing hard.”

“I remember registering you now,” I said. “You had dark glasses on and a scarf over your head. It’s Miss Grant, isn’t it?”

“Judy,” she said, “would be better.”

“I’m Bob Farrell,” I told her. We gazed at each other. “Are you people going to be around long?” “We’re going on to the coast tomorrow or next

day,” she said. “Hank—Mr. Wilson—has some business there. Mother and I just sort of came along for the ride.”

I looked at the engagement ring she wore. I said, “I was just wondering.”

She colored, then she gazed down at the ring too and I felt that there was something I didn’t understand. I looked over and saw Wilson at the bait tank. If I was in his shoes, I thought, there’d be another ring on that finger quick.

“I heard Hank speaking to you on the phone this morning,” she said. “He didn’t really mean

that crack the way it sounded—the one about being scared,” she said. “It’s just that he gets very determined about things sometimes.” She looked over at Wilson and the look in her eyes made me hope he was worth it. “He’s a wonderful guy,” she went on. “The kind you can depend on all the way -—the kind that would never let you down.”

I nodded. “Well, maybe,” I thought. Still there was something about Wilson that was puzzling me —and suddenly I realized what it was. He had looked almost disappointed when he spoke of the lack of wind.

Wilson came back with the bait; he stepped down into the boat, loosed the painter from the cleat on the dock.

ABOUT four or five miles due east from the boat - dock on the lake there is a headland, a tall

rocky point, and across from it is a very colorful group of rocks known as the Devil’s Chimney. Right here the lake, after twisting around back in the mountains for maybe a hundred miles, comes, so to speak, to a head. You go around this point I’m talking about and enter a gorge, or a pass, as we call it, and from there it’s about a mile between towering rock walls down to the Dam.

As we came near the point I cut the motor and we drifted. When we were still about thirty yards off I asked Wilson to toss out the anchor. He already had his hook baited and as he dropped the anchor over the side he cast. It was a nice cast, going just where he wanted it to go with only a flick of his wrist.

I had cast into the shadow of a submerged rock and as soon as my line sank within a foot or two of the bottom I felt a customer. I set the hook and brought him in and Judy weighed him. He went a pound and a half. She snapped him on the string for me and dumped Continued on page 28

Continued on page 28

Trial by Tempest

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him over the side. She knew how to handle a boated fish; she knew how to handle herself.

Wilson reeled in, then he cast over by the submerged rock where I had been, still leaving me plenty of room in case I wanted to try there again.

In spite of his outfit, he was a sportsman. He had style. There was a sure air of skill and competence about him and you knew he would be good at games, at building a fire or handling a gun.

At first I thought he was watching his line. Then I knew he wasn’t because I could tell just from glancing at it that his bait was resting on the bottom. I realized that he was staring down at the waves as they slapped against the side of the boat, not in an absent-minded way, but intently, as if something about the waves fascinated him.

Judy sat up. She glanced at the line briefly, then at me. Neither of us said anything and after a minute he snapped out of it. He reeled in a few feet and lifted his bait off the bottom.

Something nudged my own bait then. It came back and I hooked it. Wilson passed me the net. Three pounds, two ounces, the indicator on Judy’s scales said.

“Mr. Farrell is now four pounds, ten ounces of fish ahead,” Judy announced.

We stayed around there another hour or so and Wilson didn’t catch anything. They even stopped biting for me. “How’s it around the point?” he asked.

“We can try,” I said.

1 STARTED the motor and he hauled the anchor in. At the entrance to the pass I throttled down and stared back at the lake. The breeze now could be called a small wind and the waves were larger too. It had taken us about 40 minutes to come down from the boat landing and, bucking the wind, it would take at least an hour to return. Something told me we ought to start back right away but I hated to say that to a man who hadn’t caught a fish. I let the motor out and we went around the

After a while we passed the blind canyon where a raft the government engineers had used once for some tests lay moored by cables strung out to it from the canyon walls. Fifty yards or so beyond that, and on the opposite side, there was another opening in the sheer rock walls of the pass. I swung the bow in there and we rounded a bend, then I cut the motor and we drifted silently over the still black water at the canyon’s end.

“Okay,” I said, and Wilson let the anchor go.

Now all around us the rock soared up smoothly and at the top there was a remote reddish patch that was the sky.

I realized that the air was cool. I moved forward with my shirt and handed it to Judy—watched her put her arms into the sleeves. When she got to her feet for a minute the shirt came down to her knees. She grinned at me and my heart banged suddenly against my ribs.

Wilson called out. He flicked the tip of his rod and his line went taut. He tried to reel in and couldn’t. All he had caught was a rock.

By that time I would have been disgusted enough to break the rod but he worked patiently for several minutes and finally his hook came free.

“It’s time to go,” I said then.

The gloom in the canyon had deepened and as Wilson glanced up at the darkening walls I caught his eye. I nodded toward the anchor line. “We’d better call it a day,” 1 told him. But

he didn’t move. He sat there with his head thrown back. He was listening. Then I heard it too.

You would have sworn at first it was a train. To begin with, it was so far off in the distance, but it came closer fast. It tore across the lake and burst into the pass. It rumbled through like a fast freight. Then a wave came rolling around the bend and we tilted up and

“Wind ” Wilson whispered.

“Get that anchor!” I yelled. But he didn’t seem to hear. I was just lunging forward to pull it in myself when Judy grabbed the line.

Another wave hit us while I wound up the motor, making a loud booming sound as it slammed high up on the canyön wall. The motor caught just as Judy got the anchor in and we charged around the bend. We climbed a wave and cold spray whipped back into our faces, then we were suddenly in the midst of the fury outside. Now great waves were streaking through the pass, their tops feathering, crowding and jostling one another like cattle in a chute. Over it all hung a sombre grey twilight and high in the beetling walls there was a shrieking, a wild gusty laughter.

As we turned into it, the wind grabbed fiercely at the bow. It tore at my head and rammed my breath back down my throat. Waves rebounding from their surges along the near wall of the pass slapped us hard and spilled their tops into the boat. 1 saw Wilson cowering behind his seat and I picked up a bailing can and threw it at him. I tried screaming but I couldn’t even hear my own voice. Then the girl looked around. Her dark hair was whipping straight out and there was a wild excitement burning in her eyes. They widened as she saw Wilson. She grabbed the can and began to bail.

1KEPT edging the bow over toward the wall of the pass toward the canyon where the raft was, while the wind flung us back until at the last we were only a few feet off the streaming rock. I flung the bow over hard.

The raft was a workmanlike job, a timbered deck bolted to some empty oil drums. It was about 20 feet long by 15 wide and had once been completely covered by a tarpaulin nailed to a skeleton of well-braced two-by-fours.

There was only going to be one chance at that raft, I figured. If we were swept on past it, we were going to pile up against the cliff at the canyon end. As we smashed obliquely into the raft I jumped. I made my line faet around one of the uprights then grabbed the bow. I had just secured the painter around another upright when the girl landed on the raft beside me. She sank to her knees.

“Look at him!” she cried, and she pointed to Wilson who still crouched in the bottom of the boat. I rolled Wilson over. I saw that his eyes were open and I helped him sit up. Between us we managed to coax him up onto the raft.

In the canyon the wind would fade off altogether at times, as if it had forgotten where the entrance was, then— as if suddenly finding it again it would whoop in on us, tearing at the tarp and making the cables groan with strain.

I took the lantern over into the sheltered comer where the tarp was and with some matches from the tackle box managed to get it lit. In the sudden flare of light I sa w Judy, a staunch little figure in a wet shirt, staring down at Wilson. He still lay there in an utter funk, his brawny arms flung across hie

She came over into the shelter and knelt by the lantern. “What can I do?” she a ski ■«!, yelling the words into my

“Just take it easy!” I yelled back.

There was half an oil drum on the raft that had been used for fires before and for fuel there were the remains of a rough drafting table. I kicked the rest of the table apart and tossed some of it into the drum. I was just turning to get the gas can out of the boat when Judy handed it to me.

When the fire blazed up we could see the cable on the open side of the raft streaking up tautly toward the canyon wall. We could see the little pinnacle of rock that stuck up out of the water about twenty yards down the canyon and we could see the waves driving down on us, rank after rank, passing under us to thunder up the rock at the canyon end.

I moved over to where Wilson lay. “Come on!” I yelled, kneeling beside him. “We’re going to haul up the boat!”

He took his arms away from his face and, as if with a great effort, sat up. He glanced at the waves and shuddered. Then a blast of wind struck us. The raft pitched violently and he shut his eyes.

Judy came up beside me. “I’ll help with the boat,” she said. She stared down at Wilson impersonally.

1 HATED him then for what he was.

And, knowing the fear that was clawing at my own insides, I hated him even more. “You’re in the way,” I told him. I nudged him with my toe.

“Why don’t you crawl over by the fire, Hank,” Judy suggested and her voice, in a terrible way, was kind.

I slipped down into the boat and took off the outboard and hauled it up on the raft. Then we got the boat up, the bow first, and the rest of it by easy stages with the waves and the downward plunges of the raft helping us.

When we had it lashed into place I led Judy over to the fire. I threw some more wood in the drum and found a piece of tarp to wrap around her. Her hands were raw-looking from the wet ropes and her lips were blue with cold. There were fewer letups in the wind now and the raft was pitching so that the water had begun to slosh up through the timbers.

I shivered and glanced around for Wilson and, just at that instant, the raft lunged with an entirely new violence and we both staggered back and sat down. There was a vast rending noise then as the wind swooped up under the tarp and, even as we looked at it, our roof vanished. Now, far above us, there was a small tilting patch of stars and it was as if we watched them from deep in a mine shaft or from the bottom of a well.

I DON’T know how many hours passed. After a certain amount of it you can get used to just about anything, I guess, and the wind finally induced a kind of stupor. For a while I dozed and when I woke the girl was crouched beside me, her hand on my shoulder.

I sat up, aware at once that the motion of the raft had changed. It no longer pitched but was riding almost smoothly. I looked at Judy’s face, then followed her gaze.

At first it just dicfo’t seem possible— there was a cliff directly in front of us and it was so close it seemed we might reach out and touch it. I sprang to my feet just as the raft, with a booming splintering sound, met the rock. It climbed a few feet and crashed back, then tried again. The fire drum tottered crazily, the flames shot upward and the wind scooped out sparks and embers, sending them streaming down the canyon. A wave crashed over and swirled a moment around our ankles before it ran off and there was a wild

new howling in the wind. On the next smash the boat tore loose and the raft promptly crushed it against the rock.

One cable had parted and we had swung over to hang at the bitter end of the one remaining, flung now with a pendulum motion against the cliff wall. Now as I gazed about me it was as if I dreamed. I saw Wilson, the only one of us left on his feet. I had not even looked at him, it seemed to me, for hours and I was almost surprised to see that he was still there. Now he stood in the centre of the drunkenly tossing raft and the scene reminded me suddenly of the illustrations in an old book we had at home when I was a boy. With the red light of the fire flickering on his face Wilson looked exactly like one of those old-time men the book had pictured. They too always stood perilously in the midst of waves or flames, in all sorts of hellish situations, and always with the same sort of look on their faces that was on Wilson’s now. They were—my mother had once explained to me—men who were fighting for their souls.

Then Wilson started moving toward the edge of the raft. He knelt at the ringbolt which still secured the broken cable and I saw him start to haul the cable in.

The raft rose high once more, with the oil drums sounding like cannon as they smashed against the cliff. Some timbers gave and the deck of the raft buckled beneath us, then we sank back. When I looked at Wilson again the broken cable was piled beside him and he was lashing a rope around it near its severed end. He stood up then and, with the wind tearing at that gay ridiculous shirt he wore, secured the rope around his waist.

It was hard to believe that he would do it. I think if I could have moved fast enough I would have stopped him. At the last instant I saw him hesitate and I knew that terror still gripped him, just as much as it ever had. Yet in that instant he was gone, head first off the raft.

I crawled over to the cable to make sure it payed out freely. I knew what Wilson was going to try to do. I flashed my light out over the water. About thirty yards up toward the mouth of the canyon from us the pinnacle of rock stuck up palely, the waves still not quite clearing it. After a minute I saw Wilson’s head. He was swimming strongly, using a breast stroke, and was already halfway there.

I kept the light focused on the rock and we saw him when he reached it. He hung on for a minute while he pulled more cable toward him. We saw a wave slap him hard, driving his head against the rock, then as the raft tried climbing the cliff once more it was impossible to keep the light steady and we lost him. The next time I got the rock in focus he wasn’t there.

I probed the tossing waters carefully for him. I was going to count up to 60, then if I didn’t see him I was going to start hauling the cable in fast.

I had counted to fifty when I felt Judy’s fingers tighten on my arm. She took my hand and moved the light a little bit and Wilson’s face appeared before us. We dragged him in and I just had time to see that he was grinning and his head was bleeding, then Judy took over. She held his head in her lap, weeping over him, hugging him

I got the cable end free of the rope and slipped it through the ringbolt, then I hauled it in till it was taut. As the raft surged back from the cliff I took up the slack. When I thought I had enough I made the cable fast to the ringbolt and waited. The next time the raft headed for the cliff it didn’t quite get there. The cable tightened. It

twisted up out of the water, shaking itself. It groaned, then held. I stood looking at it in the flashlight’s beam and I felt lightheaded with relief. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to shout. I wanted to get down and shake Wilson’s hand.

I DIDN’T have a chance to say much of anything to him until, with the first grey light, the wind died and the power cruiser came out from the boat landing and took us off. On the trip back we sat in the cabin wrapped in blankets.

“Mr. Farrell,” said Judy, “I owe you a lot. I thought he was never going to get around to it.”

“I guess maybe you know now why I hesitated,” Wilson said.

I turned and saw Judy, with stars in her eyes, frown thoughtfully. “I think maybe I do,” she said.

“I have kind of a hunch too,” I admitted.

Wilson nodded. “When I was little some bigger kids pushed me into a swimming pool and left me there. It took a pulmotor to bring me around and after that I was really a mental case where water was concerned.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Judy demanded.

Wilson shook his head at her. “Whenever I’d get near a body of water of any size I’d get scared and sick to my stomach and I always had nightmares where I drowned. When I got older I was so ashamed that I went to a psychiatrist and he made me learn to swim. I got so I could even go out fishing without getting sick. Then the war came along and I knew what I had to do—I joined the navy. At last, I thought, I’d get my real test. There’d come a time in the navy, I hoped, when the chips would be down and I’d find out whether I was still a coward or not. I’d find out at last what kind of a guy I really was.”

“Poor Hank!” Judy said.

“Judy knows how I spent the war,” he told me. “Ashore—training gunnery

crews.”

I nodded. I was thinking of the way he kept watching the waves slap against the side of the boat when he should have been concentrating on his line; the kind of welcoming yet dreadful look that had been on his face when we first heard the wind.

“Dear Hank,” Judy said. “You could have told me. I would have understood. And then I wouldn’t have thought, as I did last night—She stopped abruptly, hesitated a moment and began to sniffle.

He smiled at her and shook his head. “It wouldn’t have been right,” he said. “I had to find out first. I had to really

I watched them a moment, then I turned away. For a while I sat and looked out at the big lead-colored waves and I knew that Wilson was right. ★