Cheri attempted to breathe, gasping like a fish out of water. The choppy waves buffeted her body as she struggled to stay afloat. Just a few dozen yards away the Eva Marie was sinking fast. Cheri noted the angle of her lights and wondered how long before she herself would join the little fishing tug on the floor of Lake Michigan.
Moments before, she saw the crew members manning the pumps below deck and then her father slipped the life preserver over her head and strapped it on.
“Go to the wheelhouse! Robert is there. He’ll take care of you,” he shouted above the sounds of straining machinery. She obeyed, her eyes pleading for him to follow. But he returned to the task at hand: rescuing the boat in which so much of his life was invested.
Even now she wondered if the crew had realized their plight and manned the lifeboat. When the freezing lake waters hit the steam boiler engine, all who remained onboard would be lost. Within seconds, there was a dull thud from the direction of the Eva Marie and the last of her lights were extinguished. Cheri swallowed sobs that tempted her to give up and kept treading water.
“Halloo!” A faint shout drifted across the waves. The rain spat into her eyes as she squinted toward the voice. It repeated, closer this time. “Halloo!”
Desperation gripped her. “I’m here!” she called. The wind shrieked across the waters and ripped her cry from her lips.
She determined to swim toward the place from which she thought the first shout originated. Then, gritting her teeth, she reminded herself that she must reserve her strength. Any attempt on her part to pinpoint the location of this would-be rescuer would be futile in this tempest.
Again and again she called until her throat burned. A ghostly shape emerged atop a foam-topped wave, then dove into the valley of the next. “I’m here!” she screamed.
Then the life dinghy was beside her, hands clutching her arms and pulling her to safety. She collapsed into the bottom of the craft and closed her eyes.
“Cheri?” When she looked, Robert’s face was inches from her own. “Thank the Lord I found you.”
She scrambled to a sitting position and scanned the length of the dinghy but Robert was the only other occupant.
“My father?” Her voice quavered as she locked her wild-eyed gaze on the youth.
Robert bowed his head and clasped her hands in his. “I’m sorry.”
Her body began to shiver uncontrollably. “Are you sure no one else . . .”
Because they were the youngest aboard the Eva Marie, Robert and she had become good friends. Now, she despised his survival and her father’s sacrifice. He pulled her closer despite the balled fists she inserted between them. Tears came and sobs racked her body. Robert clumsily stroked her drenched hair. Then her arms reached around his waist.
For several minutes, they held each other tightly in mutual grief.
Robert broke the silence. “I radioed for help.” The words hung between them.
Cheri’s teeth chattered.
Robert removed his life jacket, then his wool pea jacket. He enveloped Cheri in its warmth and slipped his life jacket back on over his thin shirt.
“D-d-did you g-get anyone?”
He kissed the top of her head and drew her even closer. “Yes.” He bit his bottom lip, wondering if the Traverse City Coast Guard would find them in time.
“I’m s-so t-tired.” She nestled her head into his shoulder and closed her eyes.
“No!” Robert protested, shaking her by the shoulders. “You have to stay awake. If you go to sleep, you may never wake up again.”
“Who cares?” she murmured.
The young man let out a desperate moan and clutched her shoulders in a vise-like grip. He shook her more violently.
“Hurtin’ me,” she slurred. “Lea' me ‘lone.”
Robert prayed under his breath for wisdom and protection, then blurted, “If you die, I can’t marry you.”
Cheri tried to focus her eyes on his face. “Marry?”
“Stay awake. Please, Cheri. I don’t want to spend this night or the rest of my life without you.”
When the waves calmed and dawn was a gentle blush on the rim of the horizon, the Traverse City Coast Guard found the battered dinghy. Its two occupants, half-frozen and weary, hugged and wept as the ship approached. Guardsmen would marvel later that their rescue was a modern day miracle.
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