American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

"Are You There, My Lad?"

Here is an old and oft-told story, but it is well worthy of repetition.

John Maynard was a pilot on board of one of the largest steamers on the Great Lakes. Time after time he had guided the monster vessel safely from port to port. He knew all the landmarks and lights; he knew the best channels; even in the most terrific storms he never lost his reckoning.

Whether the water was rough or smooth, whether the air was calm, or whether the wind blew fiercely, he was always at this post. The lives of hundreds of men, women, and children depended upon his watchfulness and care. And yet, how few of the passengers in the comfortable cabin, or in their cozy berths at night, ever gave one thought to the pilot in his lonely watch-tower above them!

The steamer was making its one hundred and twentieth trip between two busy ports on Lake Erie. It was midsummer, and the weather was fair. The passengers had had a delightful day, and no one dreamed of disaster. At midnight all on board were asleep, save the faithful pilot, the engineer, and those of the crew who were on duty.

"I think we shall have rain before morning," said John Maynard. For, indeed, the sky was no longer clear. Dark clouds were rolling up from the west, and only now and then could a star be seen peeping through the gathering mists. The nearest shore was miles away, and not a light was in sight. There was no sound save the dull thud of the great engine and the regular splashing of the paddle wheels in the water.

But what was that? John Maynard, with his hand on the wheel, listened intently. It was the cry of "Fire!" far down in the hold. In a moment there was a great stir on board. The captain rushed out upon the deck, giving hurried orders to his men. The passengers, awakened from their sleep, ran hither and thither in wild confusion.

Then dense clouds of smoke poured forth, wrapping the vessel as in a cloak of darkness. From the portholes below, red tongues of flame began to shoot out. Women and children, and even strong men, were overcome with terror. John Maynard stood at the wheel, steering the vessel steadily shoreward.

"Pilot, how far are we from land?"

"It is a matter of three miles, perhaps," was the answer.

The forward part of the vessel had been the first to take fire. The flames were slowly eating their way backward. Twice the roof of the pilot house had been ablaze, and twice the crew had saved it by turning the hose upon it. But now the hose had burst, the flames had increased, and there seemed to be no hope.

"Are you there, my lad?" called the captain.

"Ay, ay, sir!" was the quick answer.

"Can you hold on till we reach land?"

"I'll try, sir!"

Through perilous waters the blazing ship sped swiftly toward the land. And John Maynard, amid smoke and flames, still held the wheel.

The captain had ordered the lifeboats to be launched. But they had lain so long in the dry midsummer air that their seams had opened and they would not float. And now the terror of the passengers was greater than before. Some fainted Upon the deck, some tried to cast themselves overboard; all were hopeless.

"Listen!" cried the captain. "In two minutes we shall reach land. If our pilot can hold out, the boat will be beached and all will be saved."

But now the pilot house appeared to be wrapped in a sheet of flame.

"Are you there, my lad?" again called the captain.

"Ay, ay, sir!" feebly answered the pilot.

"Can you hold out one minute longer?"

"With—God's—help," was the gasping reply.

The boat was at the beach. Her bottom was grazing the sand. Soon the passengers and crew were safe on dry land.

Where is the pilot?" cried one.

The pilot house was all ablaze. The pilot's hand was still upon the wheel; but the life had fled from his heroic body.

When the roll of the world's heroes is called, shall any name of warrior or of king stand higher than that of John Maynard?

"Are you there, my lad?"

"Ay, ay, sir!"