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THE SECOND PRIZE CREW
In semi-tropic Pacific weather the unexpected so seldom happens as to be a negligible quantity. The Wolverine met with it on June 5th. From some unaccountable source in that realm of the heaven-scouring trades came a heavy mist. Possibly volcanic action, deranging by its electric and gaseous outpourings the normal course of the winds, had given birth to it. Be that as it may, it swept down upon the cruiser, thickening as it approached, until presently it had spread a curtain between the warship and its charge. The wind died. Until after fall of night the Wolverine moved slowly, bellowing for the schooner, but got no reply. Once they thought they heard a distant shout of response, but there was no repetition.
"Probably doesn't carry any fog horn," said Carter bitterly, voicing a general uneasiness.
"No log; compass crazy; without fog signal; I don't like that craft. Barnett ought to have been ordered to blow the damned thing up, as a peril to the high seas."
"We'll pick her up in the morning, surely," said Forsythe. "This can't last for ever."
Nor did it last long. An hour before midnight a pounding shower fell, lashing the sea into phosphorescent whiteness. It ceased, and with the growl of a leaping animal a squall furiously beset the ship. Soon the great steel body was plunging and heaving in the billows. It was a gloomy company about the wardroom table. Upon each and all hung an oppression of spirit. Captain Parkinson came from his cabin and went on deck. Constitutionally he was a nervous and pessimistic man with a fixed belief in the conspiracy of events, banded for the undoing of him and his. Blind or dubious conditions racked his soul, but real danger found him not only prepared, but even eager. Now his face was a picture of foreboding.
"Parky looks as if Davy Jones was pulling on his string," observed the flippant Ives to his neighbour.
"Worrying about the schooner. Hope Billy Edwards saw or heard or felt that squall coming," replied Forsythe, giving expression to the anxiety that all felt.
"He's a good sailor man," said Ives, "and that's a staunch little schooner, by the way she handled herself."
"Oh, it will be all right," said Carter confidently. "The wind's moderating now."
"But there's no telling how far out of the course this may have blown him."
Barnett came down, dripping.
"Anything new?" asked Dr. Trendon.
The navigating officer shook his head.
"Nothing. But the captain's in a state of mind," he said.
"What's wrong with him?"
"The schooner. Seems possessed with the notion that there's something wrong with her."
"Aren't you feeling a little that way yourself?" said Forsythe. "I am. I'll take a look around before I turn in."
He left behind him a silent crowd. His return was prompt and swift.
"Come on deck," he said.
Every man leaped as to an order. There was that in Forsythe's voice which stung. The weather had cleared somewhat, though scudding wrack still blew across them to the westward. The ship rolled heavily. Of the sea naught was visible except the arching waves, but in the sky they beheld again, with a sickening sense of disaster, that pale and lovely glow which had so bewildered them two nights before.
"The aurora!" cried McGuire, the paymaster.
"Oh, certainly," replied Ives, with sarcasm. "Dead in the west. Common spot for the aurora. Particularly on the edge of the South Seas, where they are thick!"
"Then what is it?"
Nobody had an answer. Carter hastened forward and returned to report.
"It's electrical anyway," said Carter. "The compass is queer again."
"Edwards ought to be close to the solution of it," ventured Ives. "This gale should have blown him just about to the centre of interest."
"If only he isn't involved in it," said Carter anxiously.
"What could there be to involve him?" asked McGuire.
"I don't know," said Carter slowly. "Somehow I feel as if the desertion of the schooner was in some formidable manner connected with that light."
For perhaps fifteen minutes the glow continued. It seemed to be nearer at hand than on the former sighting; but it took no comprehensible form. Then it died away and all was blackness again. But the officers of the Wolverine had long been in troubled slumber before the sensitive compass regained its exact balance, and with the shifting wind to mislead her, the cruiser had wandered, by morning, no man might know how far from her course.
All day long of June 6th the Wolverine, baffled by patches of mist and moving rain-squalls, patrolled the empty seas without sighting the lost schooner. The evening brought an envelope of fog again, and presently a light breeze came up from the north. An hour of it had failed to disperse the mist, when there was borne down to the warship a flapping sound as of great wings. The flapping grew louder--waned--ceased--and from the lookout came a hail.
"Ship's lights three points on the starboard quarter."
"What do you make it out to be?" came the query from below.
"Green light's all I can see, sir." There was a pause.
"There's her port light, now. Looks to be turning and bearing down on us, sir. Coming dead for us"--the man's voice rose--"close aboard; less'n two ship's lengths away!"
As for a prearranged scene, the fog-curtain parted. There loomed silently and swiftly the Laughing Lass. Down she bore upon the greater vessel until it seemed as if she must ram; but all the time she was veering to windward, and now she ran into the wind with a castanet rattle of sails. So close aboard was she that the eager eyes of Uncle Sam's men peered down upon her empty decks--for she was void of life.
Behind the cruiser's blanketing she paid off very slowly, but presently caught the breeze full and again whitened the water at her prow. Forgetting regulations, Ives hailed loudly:
"Ahoy, Laughing Lass! Ahoy, Billy Edwards!"
No sound, no animate motion came from aboard that apparition, as she fell astern. A shudder of horror ran across the Wolverine's quarter-deck. A wraith ship, peopled with skeletons, would have been less dreadful to their sight than the brisk and active desolation of the heeling schooner.
"Been deserted since early last night," said Trendon hoarsely.
"How can you tell that?" asked Barnett.
"Both sails reefed down. Ready for that squall. Been no weather since to call for reefs. Must have quit her during the squall."
"Then they jumped," cried Carter, "for I saw her boats. It isn't believable."
"Neither was the other," said Trendon grimly.
A hurried succession of orders stopped further discussion for the time. Ives was sent aboard the schooner to lower sail and report. He came back with a staggering dearth of information. The boats were all there; the ship was intact--as intact as when Billy Edwards had taken charge--but the cheery, lovable ensign and his men had vanished without trace or clue. As to the how or the wherefore they might rack their brains without guessing. There was the beginning of a log in the ensign's handwriting, which Ives had found with high excitement and read with bitter disappointment.
"Had squall from northeast," it ran. "Double reefed her and she took it nicely. Seems a seaworthy, quick ship. Further search for log. No result. Have ordered one of crew who is a bit of a mechanic to work at the brass-bound chest till he gets it open. He reports marks on the lock as if somebody had been trying to pick it before him."
There was no further entry.
"Dr. Trendon is right," said Barnett. "Whatever happened--and God only knows what it could have been--it happened just after the squall."
"Just about the time of the strange glow," cried Ives.
It was decided that two men and a petty officer should be sent aboard the Laughing Lass to make her fast with a cable, and remain on board over night. But when the order was given the men hung back. One of them protested brokenly that he was sick. Trendon, after examination, reported to the captain.
"Case of blue funk, sir. Might as well be sick. Good for nothing. Others aren't much better."
"Who was to be in charge?"
"Congdon," replied the doctor, naming one of the petty officers.
"He's my coxswain," said Captain Parkinson. "A first-class man. I can hardly believe that he is afraid. We'll see."
Congdon was sent for.
"You're ordered aboard the schooner for the night, Congdon," said the captain.
"Is there any reason why you do not wish to go?"
The man hesitated, looking miserable. Finally he blurted out, not without a certain dignity:
"I obey orders, sir."
"Speak out, my man," urged the captain kindly.
"Well, sir: it's Mr. Edwards, then. You couldn't scare him off a ship, sir, unless it was something--something----"
He stopped, failing of the word.
"You know what Mr. Edwards was, sir, for pluck," he concluded.
"Was!" cried the captain sharply. "What do you mean?
"The schooner got him, sir. You don't make no doubt of that, do you, sir?" The man spoke in a hushed voice, with a shrinking glance back of him.
"Will you go aboard under Mr. Ives?"
"Anywhere my officer goes I'll go, and gladly, sir."
Ives was sent aboard in charge. For that night, in a light breeze, the two ships lay close together, the schooner riding jauntily astern. But not until morning illumined the world of waters did the Wolverine's people feel confident that the Laughing Lass would not vanish away from their ken like a shape of the mist.
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