Foghorn


Zeb didn’t need anyone to remind him that it was Saturday as he came into Mumma’s warm kitchen with an armload of firewood for the stove. The beanpot, burbling gently in the oven, gave off a tantalizing aroma of molasses, pork, and beans. The boy sniffed in anticipation as he dumped the sticks into the woodbox. Twelve-year-old Zeb enjoyed the traditional Maine Saturday night baked-bean dinner.

Hattie, his older sister, pulled a kettle of water to the front of the stove. “The water’s boiling now, Mumma,” she announced.

“OK, Hat, I’m ready,” Mumma declared, coming in from the pantry with two covered cans full of brown-bread batter. She eased the cans into the kettle for their steam bath, then looked out the window toward the cove where the seawater washed onto a rocky beach. “Zeb, did you hear Daddy’s boat when you were outside?” she asked.

“Well, no … I didn’t,” the boy replied sheepishly. “I was playing my trumpet in back of the barn. With Daddy and Bubba gone lobstering, I figured it was a good chance for me to get in a few licks of practice. The band’s going to have a concert at school Tuesday. You know, Mumma, Daddy and Bubba don’t seem to appreciate my music.”

Zeb and his mother shared a wry smile. But Hattie, arms akimbo, said indignantly, “Why, Zebadiah Beale! I never once heard Daddy say a hateful word to you about that trumpet, although everybody knows that you can make more racket with that horn than a cat with its tail caught in the door.”

Zeb shook his head. “I see you have no ear for music either.” He darted in back of Hattie and gave her apron strings a tug. While Hattie fussed and retied her apron, Zeb escaped to the pantry and fished a doughnut out of the brown crock. Munching contentedly, he eased back into the kitchen as Hattie was saying, “It looks like we’re going to have company. Here comes Effie Nash.”

Zeb watched with interest as a figure in a plaid coat came up the steps. She must be about Mumma’s age, he thought, but she doesn’t act like any adult that I know. People said Effie was “lacking,” but Zeb thought her way of thinking made about as much sense as anyone else’s. He remembered seeing Effie in town one day with her shoes on the wrong feet. When someone had pointed the fact out to her, she’d said, “Why, I find they wear longer if I change them around once in a while.” Maybe shoes do last longer by switching them around, Zeb mused.

Hattie opened the door, and Effie came in. She was wearing her shoes on the proper feet today. Getting right down to business, she announced, “Ma said to tell you to save three lobsters when Matt gets back. She wants them for dinner tomorrow. Ahh-choo!”

“Good gracious, Effie,” Mumma said, handing her a handkerchief, “how did you catch such a cold?”

“I’m sure I don’t know—SNIFF—unless it was because I had a hole in my mitten when I was hanging out the wash yesterday morning.”

Hattie had a sudden attack of coughing, and Zeb gave her a warning poke. Mumma said hurriedly, “We’ll be sure to save the lobsters for you, Effie. Won’t you sit down and stay awhile?”

“No, thanks. I have to get back home. Ma’s waiting for me to help her with supper.”

The door banged shut behind Effie, and she trudged down the path toward the road.

Mumma looked out the window and drew in her breath sharply. “Oh, my! Look at that fog coming in off the ocean.”

Fog! Zeb felt a hard knot of fear form in the pit of his stomach—Daddy and Bubba were still out there somewhere! When great fog banks rolled in from the sea without any warning, small fishing boats sometimes got lost because the fishermen couldn’t see the shore or any familiar landmark.

Mumma, Hattie, and Zeb grabbed their coats and ran outside and down to the edge of the cove, anxiously listening for the sound of a motorboat. As the fog thickened, blotting out even the outlines of the spruce trees behind them, all ordinary sounds were muffled into an eerie silence.

Mumma cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “MATT? BUBBA? … MATT!” But the fog seemed to wrap her cries in dirty cotton wool and drop them into the cold gray water near her feet. Putting her arms around her children Mumma sighed, then took a deep breath and turned to Hattie and Zeb and said, “Our voices aren’t going to carry far enough to be heard, so let’s build a bonfire on the beach. Maybe Daddy and Bubba will see the glow from it. You two go up to the shed and start lugging firewood. I’ll get some brush together. Don’t forget to bring matches back with you.”

“I’ll get the matches from the kitchen, Zeb, and be right back,” Hattie panted as they scrambled up the path toward the woodshed.

Zeb nodded and began pulling sticks off the woodpile. Hattie was back in a minute, shoving a box of wooden matches into her coat pocket. They worked quickly, and soon both had as much wood as they could carry. “C’mon, Hat! That’s enough for the first trip,” Zeb cautioned as Hattie seemed intent on loading herself like a pack mule.

They stumbled back down the path to the edge of the beach, hardly able to see where they were going. When they reached the rocky shore, they peered uneasily through the thick mist, trying to find Mumma.

“Is that you, kids?” Mumma’s voice sounded as hollow as a ghost’s, until she finally emerged in front of them. “I’ve piled a lot of brush near the edge of the water. Follow me, and we’ll get some wood on it.”

Walking single file, they approached the heap of brush, where Zeb and Hattie dropped their loads. Zeb arranged a few sticks loosely on top of the tinder, then lit a match to it. The fog and the sea air had dampened the once-dry brush, but it finally crackled and flared and caught fire.

“Mumma, you keep it going. Hat and I’ll go back for more wood.”

Zeb and Hattie were clambering up the path when they heard footsteps. Zeb, leading the way, almost bumped into a tall heavyset figure wearing oilskins and gum boots.

“Hold on there, Zeb. I don’t aim to be trampled to death,” Mr. Nash’s voice boomed out somewhere over the top of Zeb’s head.

“Daddy and Bubba haven’t come back yet, Mr. Nash,” Hattie blurted out. “We’ve built a bonfire down on the shore, and we’re going to get more wood.”

“Let me give you a hand,” Mr. Nash said, turning back up the path with them. “Effie said your Pa wasn’t back when she was over at your house. When the fog came in, I thought I’d check on you. It’s going to take a lot of wood to keep that fire going. Hattie, why don’t you scoot over to Peavys’ and tell them what’s happened. Those two Peavy boys can help carry wood too.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Hattie said gratefully. She turned down the road toward the Peavy house, while Zeb and Mr. Nash plunged on up to the shed. Zeb felt better in the comforting presence of this big man, who seemed to know just what to do. The tight knot in his stomach loosened up a little as he listened to Mr. Nash’s matter-of-fact voice.

When they brought their wood back to the shore, Mumma was standing by the fire. “Well, Bertha,” Mr. Nash greeted her, “any sign of them yet?”

Mumma shook her head. “Not a sound.” She shivered and hugged her coat closer around her.

“It’ll take time for them to get to the cove here after they spot the fire,” Mr. Nash said. He threw more wood onto the fire. As it blazed higher, Zeb saw several figures coming toward them out of the fog with Hattie in the lead. They all carried armloads of wood. Zeb blew a sigh of relief.

But afternoon wore into evening, and in spite of the enormous bonfire, no one could hear the sound of a motorboat. It’s no use! thought Zeb in despair. They can’t see the fire through the fog. What else can we do? …

And then Zeb knew!

He charged through a knot of people coming down the path and bolted up to the house. “Hurry! Hurry!” he muttered to himself as he clattered upstairs to his room. Grabbing what he had come for, he sped back to the shore. On the rocky edge of the cove, Zeb raised his trumpet to his lips.

Out across the water, cutting cleanly through the vapor banks, the clear notes of a Sousa march pealed forth. Hardly stopping for breath, Zeb played through all the music he’d practiced for the band concert. With a stamina he never knew he had, he played on, switching to the old songs he’d known all his life. He was in the middle of “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand,” when Mumma’s hand tightened on his shoulder.

“Listen! Do you hear it?”

Zeb lowered his trumpet, and from out of the mist came a faint throb of a boat engine. Then silence. Everyone strained to listen. There it was again, a faraway motor!

“Keep playing, boy, keep playing! You’ll guide them in!” roared Mr. Nash, pulling off his moisture-laden hat and slapping it against his leg.

Zeb lifted the trumpet to his swollen lips and began the old familiar hymn again, playing it as a joyful processional. The put-put of the motorboat grew louder. Suddenly a boat loomed out of the fog, lighted by the bonfire on shore.

Mumma was the first one out onto the dock, her racing feet barely touching the wooden planks. Hattie and Zeb were close behind her.

Matt and Bubba were quickly up on the dock, hugging Mumma and Hattie. Then Zeb, still holding his trumpet, was grabbed in a bear hug by his father, while Bubba pounded him on the back.

Daddy’s eyes were bright as he said only half-teasingly, “I’m sure glad to find you at the end of that trumpet, Son, instead of the Angel Gabriel!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch