AFTER DARK, about six, the driving rain stopped. Then the wind slackened off a bit, dropping its whine. The gale was going inland at last to rake the autumn cornfield stubble on the mainland and then dwindle out against the far-off Blue Ridge peaks.
The brown-eyed boy in faded overalls and a blue shirt, dark hair atangle-Ben O'Neal-stood by the window, looking out through beads of water, seeing nothing, but somehow glad that the storm was over. A gale such as this had taken his father, John, a surfman. A squall in the sound had taken his youngest brother, Guthrie. Of certainty, the O'Neals had already paid their dues to the sea, and it was not likely they would have to pay again.
His oldest brother, Reuben, second mate on the coasting brig Elnora Langhans, was somewhere between Carolina and Trinidad, but Ben was sure he was safe. Reuben was a fine sailor.
Rachel, his mother, was at the living-room table, behind him, sewing silently in the orange glow of the lamp, deep in her own thoughts. Boo Dog, a mound of gold Labrador, slept peacefully by her feet, a familiar position.
So, aside from the tick of the ship's clock, a precise Seth Thomas, which had been salvaged off a wreck in 1889, it was very quiet in the small house, silvered by sand and wind, nestled in a hammock-high ground in a marshy region-over by the sound side, south and west of Heron Head Lifesaving Station.
But Ben knew that the surf was still pounding in, ten or twelve feet high, slamming against the Banks as if to destroy them. Probably churning Diamond Shoals into a mantrap; making seamen caught anywhere near Hatteras, just to south, wish they were snug in port, sipping beer.
This wild night, Ben was thinking, there likely wasn't a sane man, woman, or child on the barrier islands who wouldn't have wagered that a ship would crunch in and die. It was a fair bet in any nor'easter.
They were always out there, schooners or brigantines or barks, edging around Hatteras respectfully or skirting Diamond's long sand fingers, full sails bellied nicely in fair weather; main topsail and foresail reefed in foul, everything else furled away. Steamers plodded by, too; wrecked, too. More of them every year.
Ben often watched the constant parade, wishing he was aboard for the Caribbean or headed north to New York or Boston. Anywhere would have been better than these lonely islands. Anywhere.
And while the storms sent his mother into a gloom, he didn't really mind them if they didn't last long. In fact, the fury excited him. But his mother never failed to mention, once the wind began calling, that more than four hundred ships had crashed on these sands. She'd always find a way to bring up John O'Neal and Guthrie, sometimes without even mentioning their names. She'd done it earlier this day and he'd groaned. It wasn't that he didn't respect them. He did. Especially his father. But he'd never really known them. He was only two when John O'Neal was lost down at Hatteras; only four when Guthrie, who was then thirteen and money fishing for Old Man Spencer, had been swept overboard in Pamlico Sound. He knew them by photographs and stories. John O'Neal was a legend on the Banks.
But many times Ben had been told by others that if all the sailors and fishermen who'd been drowned here would suddenly come back, dating from Sir Walter Raleigh's ships on, two thousand ghosts would be walking the sands. Some nights, in bed, he thought about the ghosts. Those men walking along the beach, hair all matted and clothes ripped up, staring straight ahead; mouths open and walking, walking. Once, he dreamed of seeing his father and Guthrie. Yet, in daylight, it made no sense.
"Stopped rainin', Ben. Fetch some more wood," Rachel said.
Her voice took his mind off the beach.
The stove, an iron hot-box made in Cincinnati, could chase them out when it glowed cherry red, devouring wood almost as fast as Ben could get it, even with the damper at short choke.
"Ben," she said again.
He nodded and turned away from the window to sweater-up; get his coat and boots. He was only too happy to leave the room. Aside from dashing to the outhouse twice, he'd had to look at Chicago catalogs and do odd jobs while the frame house, tucked at the end of a short lane in red myrtle, a few live oak, and some scrub holly, yaupon, trembled in the gale. The wood was at the rear of their five rooms.
He tucked his overall pants into his rubber boot-tops, then went out. Boo Dog bounded forward first, pleased to be released. He never seemed to mind cold or plunging headfirst into the chill sound to retrieve ducks, but cared little for stinging rain.
As Ben rounded the back of the house, a flare hung in the black, turbulent sky for a few seconds and he knew instantly what it meant.
A ship was in trouble.
Yet it was odd that he'd come outside at this exact moment; that his mother had sent him out just in time to see the arc; odd that what he'd thought about earlier had come true. His heart began to pound, as usual.
Very likely, the ship had piled up on the shoals and was helpless. It had happened before almost in the same spot. During some storms, more than one ship had climbed up over the shoals, anywhere along the Banks, to come up and crash right on the beach. It made rescue easy. On a few, the men had simply jumped ashore.
He waited for another distress rocket to curve up but none came.
Licking his lips, feeling the excitement surging higher, that strange mixture that always churned in his stomach when there was a wreck, he told Boo they should go over. Then he quickly gathered an armful of wood and took it inside, dumping it noisily into the box, at the same time announcing that he'd seen a flare.
Rachel glanced up, frowning. He knew she'd rather ignore it. It wasn't that she didn't have sympathy for the ship or survivors. He thought she simply wanted to wall it off; pretend it wasn't there. Scared silly it might be Reuben and the Elnora Langhans. He could not fully understand it but knew she had an abiding hatred for the ocean. She hadn't been down to the beach in years. She seldom even looked out across the wide chopping sound toward the mainland.
"I best go over," he said, looking directly at her, hoping for even slight approval.
She increased the speed of her stitches. "They don't need your help, Ben. Filene can do right well without it."
"I best go," he insisted, realizing it was a mistake to even tell her.
She sighed but didn't answer, withdrawing back into herself. A thin woman but strong and durable, as were most Banks women, her nose was long; hair gray. She wore steel-rimmed spectacles when sewing or reading the Bible. Her skin was smooth, showing few wrinkles. She always wore a big straw hat when gardening. Sometimes she looked severe but was kindly and neighborly to anyone as long as they didn't ask what Ben's plans were. She was capable of hearty laughter and wry humor when the weather was calm.
In truth, now that he'd finished what school there was on the Banks, she was afraid Ben might go money fishing or worse. Might find someone to take him on as a ship's cabin boy instead of working now and then for Mr. Burrus up in Chicamacomico village, which the U.S. Post Office had dumbly renamed Rodanthe because ignorant mainlanders couldn't spell the former. They were both Indian names.
Actually, if she'd had the funds she would have boarded him over in Manteo so he could go on to high school. That wasn't likely, though he could read like a scholar and did his arithmetic well. He should certainly go on to high school, she believed. But she also thought it might be inevitable that he'd follow Reuben to sea. Ben had inherited a silent, stubborn roughness from John O'Neal. He was now, as she saw it, a plain ...