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"This ship," growled Carter, the second officer, to Dr. Trendon, as they stood watching the growing smoke-column, "is a worse hot-bed of rumours than a down-east village. That's the third sea-gull we've had officially reported since breakfast."
As he said, three distinct times the Wolverine had thrilled to an imminent discovery, which, upon nearer investigation, had dwindled to nothing more than a floating fowl. Upon the heels of Carter's complaint came another hail.
"Boat ahoy. Three points on the starboard bow."
"If that's another gull," muttered Carter, "I'll have something to say to you, my festive lookout."
The news ran electrically through the cruiser, and all eyes were strained for a glimpse of the boat. The ship swung away to starboard.
"Let me know as soon as you can make her out," ordered Carter.
"Aye, aye, sir."
"There's certainly something there," said Forsythe, presently. "I can make out a speck rising on the waves."
"Bit o' wreckage from Barnett's derelict," muttered Trendon, scowling through his glasses.
"Rides too high for a spar or anything of that sort," said the junior lieutenant.
"She's a small boat," came in the clear tones of the lookout, "driftin' down."
"Anyone in her?" asked Carter.
"Can't make out yet, sir. No one's in charge though, sir."
Captain Parkinson appeared and Carter pointed out the speck to him.
"Yes. Give her full speed," said the captain, replying to a question from the officer of the deck.
Forward leapt the swift cruiser, all too slow for the anxious hearts of those aboard. For there was not one of the Wolverines who did not expect from this aimless traveller of desert seas at the least a leading clue to the riddle that oppressed them.
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Can you make out her build?"
"Rides high, like a dory, sir."
"Wasn't there a dory on the Laughing Lass?" cried Forsythe.
"On her stern davits," answered Trendon.
"It is hardly probable that unattached small boats should be drifting about these seas," said Captain Parkinson, thoughtfully. "If she's a dory, she's the Laughing Lass's boat."
"That's what she is," said Barnett. "You can see her build plain enough now."
"Mr. Barnett, will you go aloft and keep me posted?" said the captain.
The executive officer climbed to join the lookout. As he ascended, those below saw the little craft rise high and slow on a broad swell.
"Same dory," said Trendon. "I'd swear to her in Constantinople."
"What else could she be?" muttered Forsythe.
"Somethin' that looks like a man in the bottom of her," sang out the crow's-nest. "Two of 'em, I think."
For five minutes there was stillness aboard, broken only by an occasional low-voiced conjecture. Then from aloft:
"Two men rolling in the bottom."
"Are they alive?"
"No, sir; not that I can see."
The wind, which had been extremely variable since dawn, now whipped around a couple of points, swinging the boat's stern to them. Barnet, putting aside his glass for a moment, called down:
"That's the one, sir. I can make out the name."
"Good," said the captain quietly. "We should have news, at least."
"Ives or McGuire," suggested Forsythe, in low tones.
"Or Billy Edwards," amended Carter.
"Not Edwards," said Trendon.
"How do you know?" demanded Forsythe.
"Dory was aboard when we found her the second time, after Edwards had left."
"Can you make out which of the men are in her?" hailed the captain.
"Don't think it's any of our people," came the astonishing reply from Barnett.
"Are you sure?"
"I can see only one man's face, sir. It isn't Ives or McGuire. He's a stranger to me."
"It must be one of the crew, then."
"No, sir, beg your parding," called the lookout. "Nothin' like that in our crew, sir."
The boat came down upon them swiftly. Soon the quarter-deck was looking into her. She was of a type common enough on the high seas, except that a step for a mast showed that she had presumably been used for skimming about open shores. Of her passengers, one lay forward, prone and quiet. A length of sail cloth spread over him made it impossible to see his garb. At his breast an ugly protuberance, outlined vaguely, hinted a deformity.
The other sprawled aft, and at a nearer sight of him some of the men broke out into nervous titters. There was some excuse, for surely such a scarecrow had never before been the sport of wind and wave. A thing of shreds he was, elaborately ragged, a face overrun with a scrub of beard, and preternaturally drawn, surmounted by a stiff-dried, dirty, cloth semi-turban, with a wide, forbidding stain along the side, worked out the likeness to a make-up.
"My God!" cackled Forsythe with an hysterical explosion; and again, "My God!"
A long-drawn, irrepressible aspiration of expectancy rose from the warship's decks as the stranger raised his haggard face, turned eyes unseeingly upon them, and fell back. The forward occupant stirred not, save as the boat rolled.
From between decks someone called out, sharply, an order. In the grim silence it seemed strangely incongruous that the measured business of a ship's life should be going forward as usual. Something within the newcomer's consciousness stirred to that voice of authority. Mechanically, like some huge, hideous toy, he raised first one arm, then the other, and hitched himself halfway up on the stern seat. His mouth opened. His face wrinkled. He seemed groping for the meaning of a joke at which he knew he ought to laugh. Suddenly from his lips in surprising volume, raucous, rasping, yet with a certain rollicking deviltry fit to set the head a-tilt, burst a chanty:
"Oh, their coffin was their ship, and their grave it was the sea: Blow high, blow low, what care we! And the quarter that we gave them was to sink them in the sea: Down on the coast of the high Barbaree-ee."
Long-drawn, like the mockery of a wail, the minor cadence wavered through the stillness, and died away.
"The High Barbaree!" cried Trendon.
"You know it?" asked the captain, expectant of a clue.
"One of those cursed tunes you can't forget," said the surgeon. "Heard a scoundrel of a beach-comber sing it years ago. Down in New Zealand, that was. When the fever rose on him he'd pipe up. Used to beat time with a steel hook he wore in place of a hand. The thing haunted me till I was sorry I hadn't let the rascal die. This creature might have learned it from him. Howls it out exactly like."
"I don't see that that helps us any," said Forsythe, looking down on the preparations that were making to receive the unexpected guests.
With a deftness which had made the Wolverine famous in the navy for the niceties of seamanship, the great cruiser let down her tackle as she drew skilfully alongside, and made fast, preparatory to lifting the dory gently to her broad deck. But before the order came to hoist away, one of the jackies who had gone down drew the covering back from the still figure forward, and turned it over. With a half-stifled cry he shrank back. And at that the tension of soul and mind on the Wolverine snapped, breaking into outcries and sudden, sharp imprecations. The face revealed was that of Timmins, the bo's'n's mate, who had sailed with the first vanished crew. A life preserver was fastened under his arms. He was dead.
"I'm out," said the surgeon briefly, and stood with mouth agape. Never had the disciplined Wolverines performed a sea duty with so ragged a routine as the getting in of the boat containing the live man and the dead body. The dead seaman was reverently disposed and covered. As to the survivor there was some hesitancy on the part of the captain, who was inclined to send him forward until Dr. Trendon, after a swift scrutiny, suggested that for the present, at least, he be berthed aft. They took the stranger to Edwards's vacant room, where Trendon was closeted with him for half an hour. When he emerged he was beset with questions.
"Can't give any account of himself yet," said the surgeon. "Weak and not rightly conscious."
"What ails him?"
"Enough. Gash in his scalp. Fever. Thirst and exhaustion. Nervous shock, too, I think."
"How came he aboard the Laughing Lass?" "Does he know anything of Billy?" "Was he a stow-away?" "Did you ask him about Ives and McGuire?" "How came he in the small boat?" "Where are the rest?"
"Now, now," said the veteran chidingly. "How can I tell? Would you have me kill the man with questions?"
He left them to look at the body of the bo's'n's mate. Not a word had he to say when he returned. Only the captain got anything out of him but growling and unintelligible expressions, which seemed to be objurgatory and to express bewildered cogitation.
"How long had poor Timmins been drowned?" the captain had asked him, and Trendon replied:
"Captain Parkinson, the man wasn't drowned. No water in his lungs."
"Not drowned! Then how came he by his death?"
"If I were to diagnose it under any other conditions I should say that he had inhaled flames."
Then the two men stared at each other in blank impotency. Meantime the scarecrow was showing signs of returning consciousness and a message was dispatched for the physician. On his way he met Barnett, who asked and received permission to accompany him. The stranger was tossing restlessly in his bunk, opening and shutting his parched mouth in silent, piteous appeal for the water that must still be doled to him parsimoniously.
"I think I'll try him with a little brandy," said Trendon, and sent for the liquor.
Barnett raised the patient while the surgeon held the glass to his lips. The man's hand rose, wavered, and clasped the glass.
"All right, my friend. Take it yourself, if you like," said Trendon.
The fingers closed. Tremulously held, the little glass tilted and rattled against the teeth. There was one deep, eager spasm of swallowing. Then the fevered eyes opened upon the face of the Wolverine's first officer.
"Prosit, Barnett," said the man, in a voice like the rasp of rusty metal.
The navy man straightened up as from a blow under the jaw.
"Be careful what you are about," warned Trendon, addressing his superior officer sharply, for Barnett had all but let his charge drop. His face was a puckered mask of amaze and incredulity.
"Did you hear him speak my name--or am I dreaming?" he half whispered.
"Heard him plain enough. Who is he?"
The man's eyes closed, but he smiled a little--a singular, wry-mouthed, winning smile. With that there sprung from behind the brush of beard, filling out the deep lines of emaciation, a memory to the recognition of Barnett; a keen and gay countenance that whisked him back across seven years time to the days of Dewey and the Philippines.
"Ralph Slade, by the Lord!" he exclaimed.
"Of the Laughing Lass?" cried Trendon.
"Of the Laughing Lass."
Such a fury of eagerness burned in the face of Barnett that Trendon cautioned him. "See here, Mr. Barnett, you're not going to fire a broadside of disturbing questions at my patient yet a while. He's in no condition."
But it was from the other that the questions came. Opening his eyes he whispered, "The sailor? Where?"
"Dead," said Trendon bluntly. Then, breaking his own rule of repression, he asked:
"Did he come off the schooner with you?"
"Picked him up," was the straining answer. "Drifting."
The survivor looked around him, then into Barnett's face, and his mind too, traversed the years.
"North Dakota?" he queried.
"No; I've changed my ship," said Barnett. "This is the Wolverine."
"Where's the Laughing Lass?"
Barnett shook his head.
"Tell me," begged Slade.
"Wait till you're stronger," admonished Trendon.
"Can't wait," said the weak voice. The eyes grew wild.
"Mr. Barnett, tell him the bare outline and make it short," said the surgeon.
"We sighted the Laughing Lass two days ago. She was in good shape, but deserted. That is, we thought she was deserted."
The man nodded eagerly.
"I suppose you were aboard," said Barnett, and Trendon made a quick gesture of impatience and rebuke.
"No," said Slade. "Left three--four--don't know how many nights ago."
The officers looked at each other. "Go on," said Trendon to his companion.
"We put a crew aboard in command of an ensign," continued Barnett, "and picked up the schooner the next night, deserted. You must know about it. Where is Billy Edwards?"
"Never heard of him," whispered the other.
"Ives and McGuire, then. They were there after--Great God, man!" he cried, his agitation breaking out, "Pull yourself together! Give us something to go on."
"Mr. Barnett!" said the surgeon peremptorily.
But the suggestion was working in the sick man's brain. He turned to the officers a face of horror.
"Your man, Edwards--the crew--they left her? In the night?"
"What does he mean?" cried Barnett.
"The light! You saw it?"
"Yes; we saw a strange light," answered Trendon soothingly. Slade half rose. "Lost; all lost!" he cried, and fell back unconscious. Trendon exploded into curses. "See what you've done to my patient," he fumed. Barnett looked at him with contrite eyes.
"Better get out before he comes to," growled the surgeon. "Nice way to treat a man half dead of exhaustion."
It was nearly an hour before Slade came back to the world again. The doctor forbade him to attempt speech. But of one thing he would not be denied. There was a struggle for utterance, then:
"The volcano?" he rasped out.
"Dead ahead," was the reply.
"Stand by!" grasped Slade. He strove to rise, to say something further, but endurance had reached its limit. The man was utterly done.
Dr. Trendon went on deck, his head sunk between his shoulders. For a minute he was in earnest talk with the captain. Presently the Wolverine's engines slowed down, and she lay head to the waves, with just enough turn of the screw to hold her against the sea-way.
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