The cruiser steamed to within half a mile of the aimless traveller, and the small boat put out. Not one of his fellows but envied the young ensign as he left the ship, steered by Timmins, a veteran bo’s’n’s mate, wise in all the ins and outs of sea ways. They saw him board, neatly running the small boat under the schooner’s counter; they saw the foresheet eased off and the ship run up into the wind; then the foresail dropped and the wheel lashed so that she would stand so. They awaited the reappearance of Edwards and the bo’s’n’s mate when they had vanished below decks, and with an intensity of eagerness they followed the return of the small boat.
Billy Edwards’s face as he came on deck was a study. It was alight with excitement; yet between the eyes two deep wrinkles of puzzlement quivered. Such a face the mathematician bends above his paper when some obstructive factor arises between him and his solution.
“Well, sir?” There was a hint of effort at restraint in the captain’s voice.
“She’s the Laughing Lass, sir. Everything ship-shape, but not a soul aboard.”
“Come below, Mr. Edwards,” said the captain. And they went, leaving behind them a boiling cauldron of theory and conjecture.
THE DEATH SHIP
Billy Edwards came on deck with a line of irritation right-angling the furrows between his eyes.
“Go ahead,” the quarter-deck bade him, seeing him aflush with information.
“The captain won’t believe me,” blurted out Edwards.
“Is it as bad as that?” asked Barnett, smiling.
“It certainly is,” replied the younger man seriously. “I don’t know that I blame him. I’d hardly believe it myself if I hadn’t——”
“Oh, go on. Out with it. Give us the facts. Never mind your credibility.”
“The facts are that there lies the Laughing Lass, a little weather-worn, but sound as a dollar, and not a living being aboard of her. Her boats are all there. Everything’s in good condition, though none too orderly. Pitcher half full of fresh water in the rack. Sails all O. K. Ashes of the galley fire still warm. I tell you, gentlemen, that ship hasn’t been deserted more than a couple of days at the outside.”
“Are you sure all the boats are there?” asked Ives.
“Dory, dingy, and two surf boats. Isn’t that enough?”
“Been over her, inside and out. No sign of collision. No leak. No anything, except that the starboard side is blistered a bit. No evidence of fire anywhere else. I tell you,” said Billy Edwards pathetically, “it’s given me a headache.”
“Perhaps it’s one of those cases of panic that Forsythe spoke of the other night,” said Ives. “The crew got frightened at something and ran away, with the devil after them.”
“But crews don’t just step out and run around the corner and hide, when they’re scared,” objected Barnett.