Salvage by Morgan Robertson
She had a large crew, abnormally large hawse-pipes, and a bad reputation—the last attribute born of the first. Registered as the
Rosebud, this innocent name was painted on her stern and on her sixteen dories; but she was known among the fishing-fleet as the
Ishmaelite, and the name fitted her. Secretive and unfriendly, she fished alone, avoided company, answered few hails, and, seldom filling her hold, disposed of her catch as her needs required, in out-of-the-way ports, often as far south as Charleston. And she usually left behind her such bitter memories of her visit as placed the last port at the bottom of her list of markets.
No ship-chandler or provision-dealer ever showed her receipted bills, and not a few of them openly averred that certain burglaries of their goods had plausible connection with her presence in port. Be this as it may, the fact stood that farmers on the coast who saw her high bow and unmistakable hawse-pipes when she ran in for bait invariably double-locked their barns and chicken-coops, and turned loose all tied dogs when night descended, often to find both dogs and chickens gone in the morning.
Once, too, three small schooners had come home with empty holds, and complained of the appearance, while anchored in the fog, of a flotilla of dories manned by masked men, who overpowered and locked all hands in cabin or forecastle, and then removed the cargoes of fish to their own craft, hidden in the fog. Shortly after this, the
disposed of a large catch in Baltimore, and the piracy was believed of her, but never proved.
Her luck at finding things was remarkable. Drifting dories, spars, oars, and trawl-tubs sought her unsavory company, as though impelled by the inanimate perversity which had sent them drifting. They were sold in port, or returned to their owners, when paid for. In the early part of her career she had towed a whistling buoy into Boston and claimed salvage of the government, showing her logbook to prove that she had picked it up far at sea. The salvage was paid; but, as her reputation spread, there were those who declared that she herself had sent the buoy adrift.
As poets and sailors believe that ships have souls, it may be that she gloried in her shame, like other fallen creatures; for her large, slanting oval hawse-pipes and boot-top stripe gave a fine, Oriental sneer to her face-like bow, and there was slur and insult to respectable craft in the lazy dignity with which she would swash through the fleet on the port tack, compelling vessels on the starboard tack to give up their right of way or be rammed; for she was a large craft, and there was menace in her solid, one-piece jib-boom, thick as an ordinary mainmast. An outward-bound coasting-schooner, resenting this lawlessness on one occasion, attempted to assert her rights, and being on the lawful starboard tack, bore steadily down on the
Ishmaelite,—who budged not a quarter-point,—and, losing heart at the last moment, luffed up, all shaking, in just the position to allow the ring of her port anchor to catch on the bill of the
starboard anchor. As her own ring-stopper and shank-painter were weak, the patent windlass unlocked, and the end of the cable not secured in the chain-locker, the
walked calmly away with the anchor and a hundred fathoms of chain, which, at the next port, she sold as legitimate spoil of the sea.
As her reputation increased, so did the hatred of men, while the number of ports on the coast which she could safely enter became painfully small. To avoid conflict with local authority, she had hurried to sea without clearing at the custom-house from Boston, Bangor, Portland, and Gloucester. She had carried local authority in the persons of distressed United States marshals to sea with her from three other ports, and landed it on some outlying point before the next meal-hour. With her blunt jib-boom she had prodded a hole in the side of a lighthouse supply-boat, and sailed away without answering questions. The government was taking cognizance, and her description was written on the fly-leaves of several revenue cutters' log-books, while Sunday newspapers in the large cities began a series of special articles about the mysterious schooner-rigged pirate of the fishing-fleet.
The future looked dark for her, and when the time came that she was chased away from Plymouth harbor—which she had entered for provisions—by a police launch, it seemed that the end was at hand; for she had done no wrong in Plymouth, and the police boat was evidently acting on general principles and instructions, which were vital enough to extend the pursuit to the three-mile limit. Her trips had become necessarily longer, and there was but two weeks' supply of food in the lazarette. The New England coast was an enemy's country, but in the crowded harbor of New York was a chance to lie unobserved at anchor long enough to secure the stores she needed, which only a large city can supply. So Cape Cod was doubled on the way to New York; but the brisk offshore wind, which had helped her in escaping the police boat, developed to a gale that blew her to sea, and increased in force as the hours passed by.
Hard-headed, reckless fellows were these men who owned the
and ran her on shares and under laws of their own making. Had they been of larger, broader minds, with no change of ethics they would have acquired a larger, faster craft with guns, hoisted the black flag, and sailed southward to more fruitful fields. Being what they were,—fishermen gone wrong,—they labored within their limitations and gleaned upon known ground.
They were eighteen in number, and they typified the maritime nations of the world. Americans predominated, of course, but English, French, German, Portuguese, Scandinavian, and Russian were among them. The cook was a West India negro, and the captain—or their nearest approach to a captain—a Portland Yankee. Both were large men, and held their positions by reason of special knowledge and a certain magnetic mastery of soul which dominated the others against their rules; for in this social democracy captains and bosses were forbidden. The cook was an expert in the galley and a thorough seaman; the other as able a seaman, and a navigator past the criticism of the rest.
His navigation had its limits, however, and this gale defined them. He could find his latitude by meridian observation, and his longitude by morning sights and chronometer time; his dead-reckoning was trustworthy, and he possessed a fair working conception of the set and force of the Atlantic currents and the heave of the sea in a blow. But his studies had not given him more than a rudimentary knowledge of meteorology and the laws of storms. A gale was a gale to him, and he knew that it would usually change its direction as a clock's hands will in moving over the dial; and if, by chance, it should back around to its former point, he prepared for heavier trouble, with no reference to the fluctuations of the barometer, which instrument to him was merely a weather-glass—about as valuable as a rheumatic big toe.
So, in the case we are considering, not knowing that he was caught by the southern fringe of a St. Lawrence valley storm, with its center of low barometer to the northwest and coming toward him, he hove to on the port tack to avoid Cape Cod, and drifted to sea, shortening sail as the wind increased, until, with nothing set but a small storm-mainsail, he found himself in the sudden calm of the storm-center, which had overtaken him. Here, in a tumultuous cross-sea, fifty miles off the shore, deceived by the light, shifty airs and the patches of blue sky showing between the rushing clouds, he made all sail and headed west, only to have the masts whipped out as the whistling fury of wind on the opposite side of the vortex caught and jibed the canvas.
It was manifestly a judgment of a displeased Providence; and, glad that the hull was still tight, they cut away the wreck and rode out the gale,—now blowing out of the north,—hanging to the tangle of spar and cordage which had once been the foremast and its gear. It made a fairly good sea-anchor, with the forestay—strong as any chain—for a cable, and she lay snug under the haphazard breakwater and benefited by the protection, as the seas must first break their heads over the wreckage before reaching her. The mainmast was far away, with all that pertained to it; but the solid, hard-pine jib-boom was still intact, and not one of the sixteen dories piled spoon-fashion in the four nests had been injured when the spars went by the board. So they were content to smoke, sleep, and kill time as they could, until the gale and sea should moderate, and they could rig a jury-foremast of the wreck.
But before they could begin,—while there was still wind enough to curl the head of an occasional sea into foam,—a speck which had been showing on the shortened horizon to windward, when the schooner lifted out of the hollows, took form and identity—a two-masted steamer, with English colors, union down, at the gaff. High out of water, her broadside drift was faster than that of the dismasted craft riding to her wreckage, and in a few hours she was dangerously near, directly ahead, rolling heavily in the trough of the sea. They could see shreds of canvas hanging from masts and gaffs.
"Wunner what's wrong wid her," said the cook, as he relinquished the glasses to the next man. "Amos," he called to another, "you've been in the ingine-room, you say. Is her ingine bus' down?"
"Dunno," answered Amos. "Steam's all right; see the jet comin' out o' the stack? There! she's turnin' over—kickin' ahead. 'Bout time if she wants to clear us. She's signalin'. What's that say, Elisha?"
The ensign was fluttering down, and a string of small flags going aloft on the other part of the signal-halyards, while the steamer, heading west, pushed ahead about a length under the impulse of her propeller. Elisha, the navigator, went below, and returned with a couple of books, which he consulted.
"Her number," he said. "She's the
o' London." As the schooner carried no signal-flags, he waved his sou'wester in answer, and the flags came down, to be replaced by others.
"Rudder carried away," he read, and then looked with the glasses. "Rudder seems all right; must mean his steerin'-gear. Why don't they rig up suthin', or a drag over the stern?"
"Don't know enough," said an expatriated Englishman of the crew. "She's one o' them bloomin', undermanned tramps, run by apprentices an' Thames watermen. They're drivin' sailors an' sailin'-ships off the sea blarst 'em!"
"Martin," said Elisha to the cook, "what's the matter with our bein' a drag for her?"
"Dead easy, if we kin git his line an' he knows how to rig a bridle."
"We can show him, if it comes to it. What ye say, boys? If we steer her into port we're entitled to salvage. She's helpless; we're not, for we've got a jury-rig under the bows. Hello! what's he sayin' now?" Other flags had gone aloft on the steamer, which asked for the longitude. Then followed others which said that the chronometer was broken.
"Better 'n ever!" exclaimed Elisha, excitedly. "Can't navigate. Our chronometer's all right; we never needed it, an' don't now, but it's a big help in a salvage claim. What ye say? Can't we get our hemp cable to him with a dory?"
Why not? They were fishermen, accustomed to dory work. A short confab settled this point; a dory was thrown over, and Elisha and Amos pulled to the steamer, which was now abreast, near enough for the name which Elisha had read to be seen plainly on the stern, but not near enough for the men shouting from her taffrail to make themselves heard on the schooner. Elisha and Amos, in the dory, conferred with these men and then returned.
"Badly rattled," they reported. "Tiller-ropes parted, an' not a man aboard can put a long splice in a wire rope, an' o' course we said we couldn't. They'll take our line, an' we're to chalk up the position an' the course to New York. Clear case o' salvage. We furnish everything, an' sacrifice our jury-material to aid 'em."
"What'll be our chance in court, I'm thinkin'," said one, doubtfully. "Hadn't we better keep out o' the courts? It's been takin' most of our time lately."
"What's the matter wi' ye?" yelled Elisha. "We owe a few hundreds, an' mebbe a fine or two; an' there's anywhere from one to two hundred thousand—hull an' cargo—that we save. We'll get no less than a third, mebbe more. Go lay down, Bill."
Bill subsided. They knotted four or five dory rodings together, coiled the long length of rope in the dory, unbent the end of their water-laid cable from the anchor, and waited until the wallowing steamer had drifted far enough to leeward to come within the steering-arc of a craft with no canvas; then they cut away the wreck, crowded forward, all hands spreading coats to the breeze, and when the schooner had paid off, steered her down with the wind on the quarter until almost near enough to hail the steamer, where they rounded to, safe in the knowledge that she could not drift as fast as the other.
Away went the dory, paying out on the roding, the end of which was fastened to the disconnected cable, and when it had reached the steamer, a heaving-line was thrown, by which the roding was hauled aboard. Then the dory returned, while the steamer's men hauled the cable to their stern. The bridle, two heavy ropes leading from the after-winch out the opposite quarter-chocks to the end of the cable, was quickly rigged by the steamer's crew.
With a warning toot of the whistle, she went ahead, and the long tow-line swept the sea-tops, tautened, strained, and creaked on the windlass-bitts, and settled down to its work, while the schooner, dropping into her wake, was dragged westward at a ten-knot rate.
"This is bully," said Elisha, gleefully. "Now I'll chalk out the position an' give her the course—magnetic, to make sure."
He did so, and they held up in full view of the steamer's bridge a large blackboard showing in six-inch letters the formula: "Lat. 41-20. Lon. 69-10. Mag. Co. W. half S."
A toot of the whistle thanked them, and they watched the steamer, which had been heading a little to the south of this course, painfully swing her head up to it by hanging the schooner to the starboard leg of the bridle; but she did not stop at west-half-south, and when she pointed unmistakably as high as northwest, still dragging her tow by the starboard bridle, a light broke on them.
"She's goin' on her way with us," said Elisha. "No, no; she can't. She's bound for London," he added. "Halifax, mebbe."
They waved their hats to port, and shouted in chorus at the steamer. They were answered by caps flourished to starboard from the bridge, and outstretched arms which pointed across the Atlantic Ocean, while the course changed slowly to north, then faster as wind and sea bore on the other bow, until the steamer steadied and remained at east-by-north.
"The rhumb course to the Channel," groaned Elisha, wildly. "The nerve of it! An' I'm supposed to give the longitude every noon. Why, dammit, boys, they'll claim they rescued us, an' like as not the English courts'll allow them salvage on our little tub."
"Let go the tow-line! Let 'em go to h—l!" they shouted angrily, and some started forward, but were stopped by the cook. His eyes gleamed in his black face, and his voice was a little higher pitched than usual; otherwise he was the steadiest man there.
"We'll hang right on to our bran-new cable, men," he said. "It's ours, not theirs. 'Course we kin turn her adrif' ag'in, an' be wuss off, too; we can't find de foremast now. But dat ain't de bes' way. John," he called to the Englishman of the crew, "how many men do you' country tramp steamers carry?"
John computed mentally, then muttered: "Two mates, six ash-cats,
two flunkies, two quartermasters, watchman, deck-hands—oh, 'bout sixteen or seventeen, Martin."
"Boys, le' 's man de win'lass. We'll heave in on our cable, an' if we kin git close enough to climb aboard, we'll reason it out wid dat English cappen, who can't fin' his way roun' alone widout stealin' little fishin'-schooners."
"Right!" they yelled. "Man the windlass. We'll show the lime-juice thief who's doin' this."
"Amos," said Martin to the ex-engineer, "you try an' 'member all you forgot 'bout ingines in case anything happens to de crew o' dat steamer; an', Elisha, you want to keep good track o' where we go, so's you kin find you' way back."
"I'll get the chronometer on deck now. I can take sights alone."
They took the cable to the windlass-barrel and began to heave. It was hard work,—equal to heaving an anchor against a strong head wind and ten-knot tideway,—and only half the crew could find room on the windlass-brakes; so, while the first shift labored and swore and encouraged one another, the rest watched the approach of a small tug towing a couple of scows, which seemed to have arisen out of the sea ahead of them. When the steamer was nearly upon her, she let go her tow-line and ranged up alongside, while a man leaning out of the pilot-house gesticulated to the steamer's bridge and finally shook his fist. Then the tug dropped back abreast of the schooner. She was a dingy little boat, the biggest and brightest of her fittings being the name-board on her pilot-house, which spelled in large gilt letters the appellation
J. C. Hawks.
"Say," yelled her captain from his door, "I'm blown out wi' my barges, short o' grub an' water. Can you gi' me some? That lime-juice sucker ahead won't."
"Can you tow us to New York?" asked Elisha, who had brought up the chronometer and placed it on the house, ready to take morning sights for his longitude if the sun should appear.
"No; not unless I sacrifice the barges an' lose my contract wi' the city. They're garbage-scows, an' I haven't power enough to hook on to another. Just got coal enough to get in."
"An' what do you call this—a garbage-scow?" answered Elisha, ill-naturedly. "We've got no grub or water to spare. We've got troubles of our own."
"Dammit, man, we're thirsty here. Give us a breaker o' water. Throw it overboard; I'll get it."
"No; told you we have none to spare; an' we're bein' yanked out to sea."
"Well, gi' me a bottleful; that won't hurt you."
"No; sheer off. Git out o' this. We're not in the Samaritan business."
A forceful malediction came from the tug captain, and a whirling monkey-wrench from the hand of the engineer, who had listened from the engine-room door. It struck Elisha's chronometer and knocked it off the house, box and all, into the sea. He answered the profanity in kind, and sent an iron belaying-pin at the engineer; but it only dented the tug's rail, and with these compliments the two craft separated, the tug steaming back to her scows.
"That lessens our chance just so much," growled Elisha, as he joined the rest. "Now we can't do all we agreed to."
"Keep dead-reckonin', 'Lisha," said Martin; "dat's good 'nough for us; an', say, can't you take sights by a watch—jess for a bluff, to show in de log-book?"
"Might; 't wouldn't be reliable. Good enough, though, for log-book testimony. That's what I'll do."
Inch by inch they gathered in their cable and coiled it down, unmoved by the protesting toots of the steamer's whistle. When half of it lay on the deck, the steamer slowed down, while her crew worked at their end of the rope; then she went ahead, the schooner dropped back to nearly the original distance, and they saw a long stretch of new Manila hawser leading out from the bridle and knotted to their cable. They cursed and shook their fists, but pumped manfully on the windlass, and by nightfall had brought the knot over their bows by means of a "messenger," and were heaving on the new hawser.
"Weakens our case just that much more," growled Elisha. "We were to furnish the tow-line."
"Heave away, my boys!" said Martin. "Dey's only so many ropes aboard her, an' when we get 'em all we've got dat boat an' dem men."
So they warped their craft across the Western Ocean. Knot after knot, hawser after hawser, came over the bows and cumbered the deck.
They would have passed them over the stern as fast as they came in, were they not salvors with litigation ahead; for their hands must be clean when they entered their claim, and to this end Elisha chalked out the longitude daily at noon and showed it to the steamer, always receiving a thankful acknowledgment on the whistle. He secured the figures by his dead-reckoning; but the carefully kept log-book also showed longitude by chronometer sights, taken when the sun shone, with his old quadrant and older watch, and corrected to bring a result plausibly near to that of the reckoning by log and compass. But the log-book contained no reference to the loss of the chronometer. That was to happen at the last.
On stormy days, when the sea rose, they dared not shorten their tow-line, and the steamer-folk made sure that it was long enough to eliminate the risk of its parting. So these days were passed in idleness and profanity; and when the sea went down they would go to work, hoping that the last tow-line was in their hands. But it was not until the steamer had given them three Manila and two steel hawsers, four weak—too weak—mooring-chains, and a couple of old and frayed warping-lines, that the coming up to the bow of an anchor-chain of six-inch link told them that the end was near, that the steamer had exhausted her supply of tow-lines, and that her presumably sane skipper would not give them his last means of anchoring—the other chain.
They were right. Either for this reason or because of the proximity to English bottom, the steamer ceased her coyness, and her crew watched from the taffrail, while those implacable, purposeful men behind crept up to them. It was slow, laborious work; for the small windlass would not grip the heavy links of the chain, and they must needs climb out a few fathoms, making fast messengers to heave on, while the idle half of them gathered in the slackened links by hand.
On a calm, still night they finally unshipped the windlass-brakes and looked up at the round, black stern of the steamer not fifty feet ahead. They were surrounded by lights of outgoing and incoming craft, and they knew by soundings taken that day, when the steamer had slowed down for the same purpose, that they were within the hundred-fathom curve, close to the mouth of the Channel, but not within the three-mile limit. Rejoicing at the latter fact, they armed themselves to a man with belaying-pins from their still intact pin-rails, and climbed out on the cable, the whole eighteen of them, man following man, in close climbing order.
"Now, look here," said a portly man with a gilt-bound cap to the leader of the line, as he threw a leg over the taffrail, "what's the meaning, may I ask, of this unreasonable conduct?"
"You may ask, of course," said the man,—it was Elisha,—"but we'd like to ask something, too" (he was sparring for time until more should arrive); "we'd like to ask why you drag us across the Atlantic Ocean against our will?"
Another man climbed aboard, and said:
"Yes; we 'gree to steer you into New York. You's adrif' in de trough of de sea, an' you got no chronometer, an' you can't navigate, an' we come 'long—under command, mind you—an' give you our tow-line, an' tell you de road to port. Wha' you mean by dis?"
"Tut, tut, my colored friend!" answered the man of gilt. "You were dismasted and helpless, and I gave you a tow. It was on the high seas, and I chose the port, as I had the right."
Another climbed on board.
"We were not helpless," rejoined Elisha. "We had a good jury-rig under the bows, and we let it go to assist you. Are you the skipper here?"
Martin's big fist smote him heavily in the face, and the blow was followed by the crash of Elisha's belaying-pin on his head. The captain fell, and for a while lay quiet. There were four big, strong men over the rail now, and others coming. Opposing them were a second mate, an engineer, a fireman, coal-passer, watchman, steward, and cook—easy victims to these big-limbed fishermen. The rest of the crew were on duty below decks or at the steering-winch. It was a short, sharp battle; a few pistols exploded, but no one was hurt, and the firearms were captured and their owners well hammered with belaying-pins; then, binding all victims as they overcame them, the whole party raided the steering-winch and engine-room, and the piracy was complete.
But from their standpoint it was not piracy—it was resistance to piracy; and when Amos, the ex-engineer, had stopped the engines and banked the fires, they announced to the captives bound to the rail that, with all due respect for the law, national and international, they would take that distressed steamboat into New York and deliver her to the authorities, with a claim for salvage. The bargain had been made on the American coast, and their log-book not only attested this, but the well-doing of their part of the contract.
When the infuriated English captain, now recovered, had exhausted his stock of adjectives and epithets, he informed them (and he was backed by his steward and engineer) that there was neither food nor coal for the run to New York; to which Elisha replied that, if so, the foolish and destructive waste would be properly entered in the log-book, and might form the basis of a charge of barratry by the underwriters, if it turned out that any underwriters had taken a risk on a craft with such an "all-fired lunatic" for a skipper as this. But they would go back; they might be forced to burn some of the woodwork fittings (her decks were of iron) for fuel, and as for food, though their own supply of groceries was about exhausted, there were several cubic yards of salt codfish in the schooner's hold, and this they would eat: they were used to it themselves, and science had declared that it was good brain-food—good for feeble-minded Englishmen who couldn't splice wire nor take care of a chronometer.
Before starting back they made some preliminary and precautionary preparations. While Martin inventoried the stores and Amos the coal-supply, the others towed the schooner alongside and moored her. Then they shackled the schooner's end of the chain cable around the inner barrel of the windlass and riveted the key of the shackle. They transhipped their clothing and what was left of the provisions. They also took the log-book and charts, compass, empty outer chronometer-case,—which Elisha handled tenderly and officiously by its strap in full view of the captives,—windlass-brakes, tool-chest, deck-tools, axes, handspikes, heavers, boat-hooks, belaying-pins, and everything in the shape of weapon or missile by which disgruntled Englishmen could do harm to the schooner or their rescuers.
Then they passed the rescued ones down to the schooner, and Martin told them where they would find the iron kettle for boiling codfish, with the additional information that with skill and ingenuity they could make fish-balls in the same kettle.
Martin had reported a plenitude of provisions, and anathematized the lying captain and steward; and Amos had declared his belief that with careful economy in the use of coal they could steam to the American coast with the supply in the bunkers: so they did not take any of the codfish, and the hawsers, valuable as fuel in case of a shortage, were left where they would be more valuable as evidence against the lawless, incompetent Englishmen. And they also left the dories, all but one, for reasons in Elisha's mind which he did not state at the time.
They removed the bonds of one man—who could release the others—and cast off the fastenings; then, with Amos and a picked crew of pupils in the boat's vitals, they went ahead and dropped the prison-hulk back to the full length of the chain, while the furious curses of the prisoners troubled the air. They found a little difficulty in steering by the winch and deck-compass (they would have mended the tiller-ropes with a section of backstay had they not bargained otherwise), but finally mastered the knack, and headed westerly.
You cannot take an Englishman's ship from under him—homeward bound and close to port—and drag him to sea again on a diet of salt codfish without impinging on his sanity. When day broke they looked and saw the hawsers slipping over the schooner's rail, and afterward a fountain of fish arising from her hatches to follow the hawsers overboard.
"What's de game, I wunner?" asked Martin. "Tryin' to starve deyselves?"
"Dunno," answered Elisha, with a serious expression. "They're not doin' it for nothin'. They're wavin' their hats at us. Somethin' on their minds."
"We'll jes let 'em wave. We'll go 'long 'bout our business."
So they went at eight knots an hour; for, try as he might, Amos could get no more out of the engine. "She's a divil to chew up coal," he explained; "we may have to burn the boat yet."
"Hope not," said Elisha. "'Tween you an' me, Amos, this is a desperate bluff we're makin', an' if we go to destroyin' property we may get no credit for savin' it. We'd have no chance in the English courts at all, but it's likely an American judge 'ud recognize our original position—our bargain to steer her in."
"Too bad 'bout that tarred cable of ours," rejoined Amos; "three days' good fuel in that, I calculate."
"Well, it's gone with the codfish, and the fact is properly entered in the log as barratrous conduct on the part of the skipper. Enough to prove him insane."
And further to strengthen this possible aspect of the case, Elisha found a blank space on the leaf of the log-book which recorded the first meeting and bargain to tow, and filled it with the potential sentence, "Steamer's commander acts strangely." For a well-kept logbook is excellent testimony in court.
Elisha's knowledge of navigation did not enable him to project a course on the great circle—the shortest track between two points on the earth's surface, and the route taken by steamers. But he possessed a fairly practical and ingenious mind, and with a flexible steel straight-edge rule, and a class-room globe in the skipper's room, laid out his course between the lane-routes of the liners,—which he would need to vary daily,—as it was not wise to court investigation. But he signaled to two passing steamships for Greenwich time, and set his watch, obtaining its rate of correction by the second favor; and with this, and his surely correct latitude by meridian observation, he hoped to make an accurate landfall in home waters.
And so the hours went by, with their captives waving caps ceaselessly, until the third day's sun arose to show them an empty deck on the schooner, over a dozen specks far astern and to the southward, and an east-bound steamship on their port bow. The specks could be nothing but the dories, and they were evidently trying to intercept the steamship. Elisha yelled in delight.
"They've abandoned ship—just what I hoped for—in the dories. They've no case at all now."
"But what for, Elisha?" asked Martin. "Mus' be hungry, I t'ink."
"Mebbe, or else they think that liner, who can stop only to save life,—carries the mails, you see,—will turn round and put 'em in charge here. Why, nothin' but an English man-o'-war could do that now."
They saw the steamship slow down, while the black specks flocked up to her, and then go on her way. And they went on theirs; but three days later they had reasoned out a better explanation of the Englishmen's conduct. Martin came on deck with a worried face, and announced that, running short of salt meat in the harness-cask, he had broken out the barrels of beef, pork, and hard bread that he had counted upon, and found their contents absolutely uneatable, far gone in putrescence, alive with crawling things.
"Must ha' thought he was fitting out a Yankee hell-ship when he bought this," said Elisha, in disgust, as he looked into the ill-smelling barrels. "Overboard with it, boys!"
Overboard went the provisions, for starving animals could not eat of them, and the odor permeated the ship. They resigned themselves to a gloomy outlook—gloomier when Amos reported that the coal in the bunkers would last but two days longer. He had been mistaken, he said; he had calculated to run compound engines with Scotch boilers, not a full-powered blast-furnace with six inches of scale on the crown-sheets.
"And they knew this," groaned Elisha. "That's why they chucked the stuff overboard—to bring us to terms, and never thinkin' they'd starve first. They were dead luny, but we're lunier."
They stopped the engines and visited the schooner in the dory. Not a scrap of food was there, and the fish-kettle was scraped bright. They returned and went on. With plenty of coal there was still six days' run ahead to New York. How many with wood fuel, chopped on empty stomachs and burned in coal-furnaces, they could not guess. But they went to work. There were three axes, two top-mauls, and several handspikes and pinch-bars aboard, and with these they attacked bulkheads and spare woodwork, and fed the fires with the fragments; for a glance down the hatches had shown them nothing more combustible and detachable in the cargo than a few layers of railroad iron, which covered and blocked the openings to the lower hold.
With the tools at hand they could not supply the rapacious fires fast enough to keep up steam, and the engines slowed to a five-knot rate. As this would not maintain a sufficient tension on the dragging schooner to steer by, they were forced to sacrifice the best item in their claim for salvage: they spliced the tiller-ropes and steered from the pilot-house. They would have sacrificed the schooner, too, for Amos complained bitterly of the load on the engines; but Elisha would not hear of it. She was the last evidence in their favor now, their last connection with respectability.
"She and the pavement o' h—l," he growled fiercely, "are all we've got to back us up. Without proof we're pirates under the law."
However, he made no entry in the log of the splicing, trusting that a chance would come in port to remove the section of wire rope with which they had joined the broken ends.
And, indeed, it seemed that their claim was dwindling. The chronometer which they were to use for the steamer's benefit was lost; the tow-line which they were to furnish had been given back to them; the course to New York which they chalked out had not been accepted; the abandoning of their ship by the Englishmen was clearly enforced by the pressure of their own presence; and now they themselves had been forced to cancel from the claim the schooner's value as a necessary drag behind the steamer, by substituting a three hours' splicing-job, worth five dollars in a rigging-loft, and possibly fifty if bargained for at sea. Nothing was left them now but their good intentions, duly entered in the log-book.
But fate, and the stupid understanding of some one or two of them, decreed that their good intentions also should be taken from them. The log-book disappeared, and the strictest search failing to bring it to light, the conclusion was reached that it had been fed to the fires among the wreckage of the skipper's room and furniture. They blasphemed to the extent that the occasion required, and there was civil war for a time, while the suspected ones were being punished; then they drew what remaining comfort they could from burning the steamer's log-book and track-chart, which contained data conflicting with their position in the case, and resumed their labors.
Martin had raked and scraped together enough of food to give them two scant meals; but these eaten, starvation began. The details of their suffering need not be given. They chopped, hammered, and pried in hunger and anxiety, and with lessening strength, while the days passed by—fortunately spared the torture of thirst, for there was plenty of water in the tanks. Upheld by the dominating influence of Elisha, Martin, and Amos, they stripped the upper works and fed to the fires every door and sash, every bulkhead and wooden partition, all chairs, stools, and tables, cabin berths and forecastle bunks. Then they attempted sending down the topmasts, but gave it up for lack of strength to get mast-ropes aloft, and attacked instead the boats on the chocks, of which there were four.
It was no part of the plan to ask help of passing craft and have their distressed condition taken advantage of; but when the hopelessness of the fight at last appealed to the master spirits, they consented to the signaling of an east-bound steamer, far to the northward, in the hope of getting food. So the English ensign, union down, was again flown from the gaff. It was at a time when Elisha could not stand up at the wheel, when Amos at the engines could not have reversed them, when Martin—man of iron—staggered weakly around among the rest and struck them with a pump-brake, keeping them at work. (They would strive under the blows, and sit down when he had passed.) But the flag was not seen; a haze arose between the two craft and thickened to fog.
By Elisha's reckoning they were on the Banks now, about a hundred miles due south from Cape Sable, and nearer to Boston than to Halifax; otherwise he might have made for the latter port and defied alien prejudice. But the fog continued, and it was not port they were looking for now; it was help, food: they were working for life, not salvage; and, wasting no steam, they listened for whistles or fog-horns, but heard none near enough to be answered by their weak voices.
And so the boat, dragging the dismal mockery behind her, plodded and groped her way on the course which Elisha had shaped for Boston, while man after man dropped in his tracks, refusing to rise; and those that were left nourished the fires as they could, until the afternoon of the third day of fog, when the thumping, struggling engines halted, started, made a half-revolution, and came to a dead stop. Amos crawled on deck and forward to the bridge, where, with Elisha's help, he dragged on the whistle-rope and dissipated the remaining steam in a wheezy, gasping howl, which lasted about a half-minute. It was answered by a furious siren-blast from directly astern; and out of the fog, at twenty knots an hour, came a mammoth black steamer. Seeming to heave the small tramp out of the way with her bow wave, she roared by at six feet distance, and in ten seconds they were looking at her vanishing stern. But ten minutes later the stern appeared in view, as the liner backed toward them. The reversed English ensign still hung at the gaff; and the starving men, some prostrate on the deck, some clinging to the rails, unable to shout, had painted to the flag of distress and beckoned as the big ship rushed by.
"There's a chance," said the captain of this liner to the pilot, as he rejoined him on the bridge an hour later, "of international complications over this case, and I may have to lose a trip to testify. That's the
and consort that I was telling you about. Strange, isn't it, that I should pick up these fellows after picking up the legitimate crew going east? I don't know which crew was the hungriest. The real crew charge this crowd with piracy. By George, it's rather funny!"
"And these men," said the pilot, with a laugh, "would have claimed salvage?"
"Yes, and had a good claim, too, for effort expended; but they've offset it by their violence. Their chance was good in the English courts, if they'd only allowed the steamer to go on; and then, too, they abandoned her in a more dangerous position than where they found her. You see, they met her off Nantucket with sea-room, and nothing wrong with her but broken tiller-ropes; and they quit her here close to Sandy Hook, in a fog, more than likely to hit the beach before morning. Then, in that case, she belongs to the owners or underwriters."
"Why didn't they make Boston?" asked the pilot.
"Tried to, but overran their distance. Chronometer must have been 'way out. I talked to the one who navigated, and found that he'd never thought of allowing for local attraction,—didn't happen to run against the boat's deviation table,—and so, with all that railway iron below hatches, he fetched clear o' Nantucket, and 'way in here."
"That's tough. The salvage of that steamer would make them rich, wouldn't it? And I think they might have got it if they could have held out."
"Yes; think they might. But here's another funny thing about it. They needn't have starved. They needn't have chopped her to pieces for fuel. I just remember, now. Her skipper told me there was good anthracite coal in her hold, and Chicago canned meats, Minnesota flour, beef, pork, and all sorts of good grub. He carried some of the rails in the 'tween-deck for steadying ballast, and I suppose it prevented them looking farther. And now they'll lose their salvage, and perhaps have to pay it on their own schooner if anything comes along and picks them up. That's the craft that'll get the salvage."
"Not likely," said the pilot; "not in this fog, and the wind and sea rising. I'll give 'em six hours to fetch up on the Jersey coast. A mail contract with the government is sometimes a nuisance, isn't it, captain? How many years would it take you to save money to equal your share of the salvage if you had yanked that tramp and the schooner into New York?"
"It would take more than one lifetime," answered the captain, a little sadly. "A skipper on a mail-boat is the biggest fool that goes to sea."
The liner did not reach quarantine until after sundown, hence remained there through the night. As she was lifting her anchor in the morning, preparatory to steaming up to her dock, the crew of the
Rosebud, refreshed by food and sleep, but still weak and nerveless, came on deck to witness a harrowing sight. The
was coming toward the anchorage before a brisk southeast wind. Astern of her, held by the heavy iron chain, was their schooner. Moored to her, one on each side, were two garbage-scows; and at the head of the parade, pretending to tow them all,—puffing, rolling, and smoking in the effort to keep a strain on the tow-line,—and tooting joyously with her whistle, was a little, dingy tugboat, with a large gilt name on her pilot-house—J. C. Hawks.