Footprints of Providence


Annette leaned against the rail of the ship, her eyes on the distant horizon. She tried to imagine she saw a sail, but she knew it wasn't true. The hot sun sparkled on the water all around her. Desperately she wished she could drink it. Never had she imagined that anyone could be so thirsty. Her tongue was like a lump of cotton in her mouth.

Not a breath of wind stirred. If only a whisper would fill the sails. But they hung limp and useless. Mother said two days of good sailing would bring them to New Orleans. Instead, it seemed they had been here on this endless ocean forever.

The girl scarcely remembered the United States. Her mother and father had traveled as missionaries to Jamaica when she was a tiny child. But the years had brought increasing sickness, especially to Mother. Father said they must go to a cooler climate so she could get well.

With delight Annette had looked forward to the trip, her mother having told her so much about the interesting things they would see. But when they carried their baggage aboard the Star and set sail, none of them could have guessed what the voyage would bring.

Only a night away from port a storm fell with crushing force on the little vessel. Frightened and seasick, Annette clung to her mother in the cabin. The whole world seemed in motion. Nothing would hold still for even a moment. The sea raged and roared. Its fury drove them far from their course.

Then a deadly calm settled over the sea. They could make no progress at all. The ship carried food and water for only a few days, but the days of calm lengthened into weeks.

Mornings everyone lined up on deck. Each one received half a ship's biscuit and a cup of water. They would get nothing else for the rest of the day. Annette thought nothing had ever tasted so good — especially the water. Some people gulped theirs at once. Others hoarded theirs. Fearful, suspicious, they guarded it, treasuring each drop.

And food — the thought of it followed Annette day and night. In desperation she even chewed on one of Mother's kid gloves. It wasn't any help. Every day she grew weaker. Most of the time she didn't want to do anything at all. Apparently the others felt the same way, because nearly everyone sat around and didn't even try to talk.

But hardest of all was the thirst. She had trouble understanding why. they couldn't drink the water from the sea. But Mother said it would be terribly dangerous. Mother dipped handkerchiefs in the ocean and tied them, dripping wet, around their throats. That helped. But their mouths were so dry and their tongues so swollen that talking was painful and difficult.

Several times someone saw a sail in the distance. They watched with agonizing interest, but it never came near. It just passed by and disappeared. Gloom settled, dark and heavy, after each such disappointment.

One evening Captain Jordon called them all on deck. He looked sad and haggard. A pitiful sight they all were-pale, thin, hollow-eyed. "We've been four weeks on this voyage," he said, "and we had supplies for only a few days. Until now we have managed to stretch them out, but they're nearly gone. We all face starvation. But we have a plan. So that some may live, some of us will have to die. Tonight we'll cast lots to choose which ones it will be. However, we won't announce the results until tomorrow morning just before time to hand out the food. Let's hope and pray that help will come before then. If it doesn't, those chosen will be thrown into the sea."

Annette couldn't believe her ears. She clung to her mother's hand and felt it shaking in hers. She saw tears in her father's eyes, too, as they made their way back to the cabin. They just wanted to be alone for a little while.

Once in the cabin, Mother cried out in anguish, "Has it really come to this? 0 God, have mercy!"
Father put strong arms around them both. "We'll pray again, my dear. 'Our God whom we serve is able to deliver.' "

Together they knelt on the rough wooden floor, pouring out their fear and sorrow to the One who alone could send help. When they finished, Mother said, "Hans, I'm going to pray all night."

"Marta, your strength won't allow it. Don't you think God will hear us now? Is there any advantage in such a sacrifice?"

But she insisted. He went to his cot on the deck and Mother tucked Annette into her berth. After she turned out the light Annette could still see her. She knelt on the hard floor beside her bunk. For a while Annette stayed awake and prayed too. As she slipped off to sleep she knew that Mother was still pleading with God.

All night Mother prayed until at last, dawn broke over the smooth Atlantic. Then she fell exhausted across her bunk and went to sleep. Only a little later Father awoke them both with an excited cry. "They think they see a sail!"

Mother raised herself on one elbow, still half asleep. "I'm afraid it will pass by like all the rest," she said. Then remembering her long hours of prayer, she suddenly added, "God, forgive me! It must be the answer to my prayers! It will surely come to our rescue."

Father put a loving hand on her shoulder. "If it's God's will, it will come to our rescue," he cautioned.
But Mother was certain now. "It is God's will. Help has come," she declared.

Annette's heart soared with hope. She sprang from her bed. Dressing quickly they followed Father up the narrow hatchway and out on deck. Every person on board crowded the railing, looking with anxious expectancy at the far horizon.

Since they could see nothing with the naked eye, they passed the ship's spyglass down the line so that each one might watch the speck on which their hopes hung. Annette shook with suspense. Would this ship pass them, too, leaving them to their fate?

No, still it came closer. Soon they could see it without the telescope. Hope lighted every face as the object grew and grew. At last they saw it was a small steamer such as then searched the sea near a harbor to help any ship in difficulty.

As it drew near it hailed the Star but not a man on board had enough strength to answer. Undaunted, it came on. Finally a small boat was lowered from the deck of the steamer and four men climbed into it. One of them appeared to be the captain. Rowing to the Star they climbed aboard. The captain stepped on deck first. Looking around at the walking skeletons that surrounded him, he took off his hat and exclaimed, "Now I believe that there is a God in heaven!"

The crew of the steamer shared what rations they had. With gentle fierceness they restricted the starving people to small portions. Too much now could make them sick:

But when Annette held a cup of water in her hands, knowing she would soon have more, her heart nearly burst with joy and gratitude. She began to sob. Mother put an arm around her shoulder. God had been good to send rescue. But Annette was curious about the captain's exclamation when he first stepped on deck.

Before LeHavre, captain of the steamer, went back to his own ship to tow them into port, he called them all together on deck. Annette leaned against the rail beside her parents,  as he told his strange story:

"For many years I have commanded this small steamer. Our task is to search the waters just out of the harbor for vessels in distress and bring them into port. We are only supposed to go out for a certain distance. In fact, we face a heavy fine if we exceed the limit. But for some reason, on this occasion when I had sailed the full distance, I felt an unaccountable urge to go on.

"My mate argued and pleaded, reminding me of the fine. I couldn't explain to him. I didn't understand it myself. But I knew I could not turn back. We sailed far out beyond the limit. Although we could see nothing, something drove me on.

"Then, after years at sea, for the first time I got seasick. It was terrible. I had to take to my bunk like a 'landlubber.' My mate told me we were low on provisions. The crew grew mutinous. They were all convinced that I had lost my mind. I could hardly be sure myself. Could I be going mad? Yet the thought of turning back was agonizing.

"I pleaded with the mate to continue for just one night. In the morning, if we still couldn't see anything, I promised to turn back.

"At early dawn the watch raised a cry that they had spotted a ship on the horizon. I staggered to the bridge. `Make for it!’ I ordered. 'That's what we came for.' Immediately my seasickness left me.

"I have been an unbeliever for many years. But it was not chance that brought me to your rescue. Now I am fully convinced that there is a God in heaven who guides with His hands the affairs of men."