Jon Johnson stood on the foredeck of the the HMS Sentinel and watched as the schooner off their port bow bobbed up and down in the gentle swell of the mid-Atlantic. The ship unnerved him. Part of that was due to the fact that he could see that some of the sails had started ripping. More disconcerting was the fact that nobody was manning those sails or, by the look of it, the helm.
"Can you see the name?" Captain Burnside asked.
Jon peered back though his glass and looked at the hull of the strange boat. "It's the USS Dog Star, and it looks like its out'ta Charleston."
"I don't think so, sir," Jon said and handed him the glass.
Captain Burnside liked to think that after ten and six odd years at sea as the master of various boats and another twenty-two years working both as a deckhand and as an officer, he knew everything the seas had to offer. He'd seen storms that appeared from nowhere and dissipated just as fast; he'd sailed through a maelstrom near Norway; sailed past the Cape of Good Hope more times than he could count; and had once drifted for four days in a lifeboat after one of his ships sunk off Cuba in a hurricane. But as he looked at the ship in front of him, the only movement he could detect was that of the sails in the breeze. Otherwise the boat was lifeless, which caused Brunside to mutter. "I don't like it."
The two ships closed with one another until the Sentinel was even with the Dog Star. At first, Jon and others had tried to hail the ship, but after receiving no response, they quickly abandoned their shouting. Burnside simply said, "I don't see any distress flags, so where in bloody hell are they?" When nobody answered him, the crew, Jon included, fell back to watching the ship, but for over two hours not a thing on the boat moved, and the only sound, aside from the wind and the sails, was the occasional creak of wood, or the slap of a wave against the hull of the boat.
Finally, Burnside, who was a burly man with a broad face and a calm demeanor said, "Well, we can't wait around forever. Hop to lads, and let's get underway as soon as we can." The men scrambled to obey, eager to get away from the ghastly ship.
After a little effort, Jon and three of his fellow crew members reached the main deck of the ship. Jon, who had a slight build, black hair, and crows feet around his eyes, rubbed the back of his neck and said "Spread out and look fast. Find out what happened to the crew if you can, and be quick about it."
The men under his command moved to obey, and as they did, Jon made his way back towards the helm near the stern. There, much to his consternation he found that the compass was broken and that both the sextant and chronometer were gone.
Looking about Jon saw a thick rope coiled around the back railing and then tied securely. He went to look and found that the other end of the rope was hanging off the back of the boat, in the water. With a growing sense of dread, he began hauling the coil back up. After he had collected about 200 feet of the drench line, the other end appeared. It was frayed and ragged, as if something had bitten through it.
Jon dropped the line and began working his way forward. As he did he encountered one of his crew, Olaf. Olaf looked like Thor might have, had he been a sailor, but his normally stern face was ashen. "There's no one. Absolutely nobody on board! But we found a meal."
"What do you mean you found a meal?"
"I mean a meal sir. It was if they were all at supper. The food is still there. Biscuits, salt pork, oranges, rum. It was all laid out and half eaten. It's like they just decided in the middle of supper to jump overboard."
Just then another one of the crew, Potot, who had signed on with the Sentinel in the Philippines, came out of the hold. He was wet up to his chest, but as he only stood four and a half feet tall, this meant the water was only about three feet deep in the hold. "The cargo looks to be secure. I didn't count everything, but there was a manifest down there, and it looks like nothing was taken."
Just as Jon was digesting this bit of news, the third man of his boarding party, a surly Scotsman by the name of Andy, came up. An evil looking man with a large scar on his cheek, Andy was in fact one of the friendliest men that Jon had ever run across. He was also the father of no less than nine children (four sons and five daughters). “Report,” Jon said.
“I was in Captain’s cabin sir. There is nothing there except for some clothing. It looks like there might have been a woman and a young girl on board sir to judge by it, sure. But sir, there was a silk bobbin just sitting loose on a table. If the ship had been pitching about, it would have fallen on the floor, sure. But nothing. Also, there was a fresh setting for tea. It’d even been poured, but it was stone cold sir. But sir, the weird part is everything is soaked through. The bed. The clothing. Everything, except that bobbin."
Jon watched as Potot rubbed an Evil Eye that he always wore on a chain around his neck. “This ship is cursed. We should go before the evil that visited here returns.”
“It’s evil alright. Probably pirates,” Jon said, "and those we can fight off."
“So could this lot. At least the Captain. There was a saber in his cabin, but it does not looked to have been touched in years. I checked. There is a little rust on it, but that’s it.” Andy said.
“Well maybe they boarded during the night,” Olaf said. “They grabbed everyone and threw them overboard.”
Potot rubbed his eye again. “That can’t be right. Everything was set for supper, and the watch would’ve seen something. There’d be more signs of a panic.”
Jon looked at Potot and said, “You said it didn’t look like anything was taken. What’s the cargo?”
“Alcohol sir. Looks like the shipment was bound for Genoa. There are 1700 barrels listed.”
“No way pirates leave that behind,” Olaf said. “It must be worth thousands, and why not take it to drink?”
Potot shook his head no. “This is no good for drinking. It is to add to wine, yes, but it is no good for drinking.”
“Maybe the crew didn’t know that and drank it. Made them crazy and they wound up going overboard.”
“Shut up all of you,” Jon said. “Guessing won’t help us get our work done any faster. Now Potot, did you check the pumps?”
The short man nodded. “There are three. Two look to be broken, and one is fine."
“Well, we had to fight through a lot of bad weather. I’m sure it hit this ship as well. So that explains most of the water below the decks. Potot, you and Andy get as much of the water out as you can, and dry out anything that can be salvaged. Olaf, get the sails in order. There wasn’t that big a crew onboard, so we would be able to manage these sails.”
Andy and Olaf gave curt nods and set about their tasks, but Potot did not move. So Jon just said, “What?”
“Sir,” Potot began, still rubbing his Evil Eye, “I do not think it is wise to salvage this ship. There is something here, and it will not like us disturbing this boat. We must go before it is too late.”
“There is nothing here, Potot. It’s just your imagination. And besides, won’t your eye there make sure you stay safe?”
“Did the gods that watched over the men of this ship help them?” Potot replied.
Jon said, slowly, “No. They did not. But it was not gods that killed these men. It was either their own mistake or other men.”
“Gods wear different masks at different times, but that does not make them anything less than what they are.”
“Just shut up and get to work, and that’s an order,” Jon said to the diminutive man.
Potot, however, did not move. In fact he sat down, and said, “I would prefer not to. This place is evil, and I will not provoke it.”
“Fine, then go back and tell Captain Burnside what we’ve found and send me over Thompson. Can you do that much at least, blast you!” In response, Potot, nodded and got up, and went to the boat that the party had rowed over on. Jon watch as he boarded and with quick, sure strokes, made his way back to the Sentinel.
Once Potot was gone, Jon set to work. First he helped Andy below deck pump the water out. It was a filthy, smelly job that left the two men grimy; however, when they were done they discovered, as Jon had suspected, that no water was coming in from the hull. Cheered by this, Jon went on deck and found Olaf.
Olaf had not only taken in the ripped sails, but rejigged the remaining sails as well as hauled up and run a new peak halyard so that the ship was ready to sail. When Jon approached he said, “Everything is as ready as I can make it. But sir, I wanted to let you know, when I went below deck for the rope I found something we missed the first time.”
“Show me,” said Jon. The blond man nodded and set off, with Jon in his wake. It did not take long for Jon to realize that Olaf was headed to the galley, but he was unprepared for what he saw. The stove had fallen over and all the silverware had been scattered about. Additionally, the clock here looked as if it had been nailed into the ceiling and was thus displaying the time in an upside down fashion.
“Did you touch anything?” Jon asked.
“No sir,” Olaf said. "I didn't even go in.”
Jon nodded and walked into the cramped space, noting as he did that the larger man did not follow him. He quickly inspected everything and found that besides the mess and the clock, there was little to remark upon. The pantry looked to have enough food in it for another six weeks, and when he looked, he found thirty fresh water barrels, only seven of which had been tapped.
“Right,” Jon said. "Come on. Let’s get out of here. All of us. Then we will see what the Captain wants us to do.” Olaf nodded. They found Andy on the main deck, the color drained from his face. “What is it?” Jon asked.
In response Andy pointed, and Jon very quickly saw. Flames were crawling out of the portals on the Sentinel. Men were running on the deck with buckets, trying to quell the conflagration. But it was to no use. Flames began squeezing between the boards of the deck, and suddenly the whole ship gave a nasty shudder.
“What was that?” Olaf nearly screamed. “We’re not carrying any powder, so what was that?”
“The olive oil in the cargo hold, sure,” said Andy.
And as if to confirm this hypothesis, great, greasy tongues of fire shot out of every portal on the side of the boat and out of every hatch on the main deck. Men abandoned their buckets and began jumping overboard in droves. Soon the survivors, twelve in all, were dragged out of the water and lay sputtering on the deck. Among them lay a dazed Captain Burnside.
“Sir,” Jon said as he helped the older man up. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. Blast you I don’t know. Get a head count,” Burnside said and then passed out. While he was out, Jon did as instructed and went through the men. Everyone, except Potot and the cook, were accounted for. While he waited for the captain to come around, Jon sent Andy to find any medical supplies that were dry and to bring them to Olaf, who was to tend to the injuries. In the meantime, Jon went through and tried to piece together what happened. But none of the men could tell him what started the fire. The only thing they all seemed to agree on was that it originated in the galley. This, along with Potot's absence, sent a spike of fear running through Jon and he was reminded of the shorter man’s last words about how the gods had abandoned the men on the ship upon which he now stood. Looking at the flaming hulk of his old ship, he could not help but wonder if the gods had abandoned his crew.
What medical supplies there were on-board were brought out and used, and even though it had been a disastrous fire for the ship, the crew was, mostly unharmed. Thus, only ten hours after finding the USS Dog Star, the crew of the HMS Sentinel sailed away from their once proud ship.
Three hours later, after those who could helped to clean up the galley mess below and right the stove, most of the men went to sleep below. This left Jon at the helm as the stars began to come out, and even though there were two other men with him on the deck (one on the bow and one in the crow's nest), he felt small and alone. Additionally, since there was no functioning clock, sextant, or chronometer, it was impossible for Jon to know if he was running true, but he was thankful that Captain Burnside had at least salvaged a functioning compass before he had fled the burning ship. It was this device that told him that he was heading easterly. Barring any extra unforeseen calamities, that meant they should reach land in about a week. It also meant there was still a good chance that they would run into another vessel. Both of which were the only things that allowed Jon a ghost of a smile.
Time passed in such a manner that it was impossible for Jon to tell if a long time had gone by or hardly any time at all. But then a sound caught his attention. At first he was not sure what it was. He listened again, but was unable to make anything out over the creak of the rope and whining sound of the boards moving through the water. But then it came again, ever so gently. A little girl’s laugh floated towards him like a snowflake blown in a hurricane: there and gone before you knew it existed. It was so unexpected that at first Jon thought he had imagined it. But then it came a third time.
Jon looked around and saw that the man on the bow was Andy. Locking the wheel, he made his way forward to where the Scotsman was staring off into the darkness. Not wishing to seem like he might be hearing things, Jon asked, "So, have you seen or heard anything?"
"Nary a thing. It's as calm as an Englishman getting ready to stick a knife in your back. And that's what worries me, sure."
Jon ignored the insult. Instead he just said, "You're...uh...sure?"
"Positive. Why? What'd ya hear?" said the sailor with a piercing look.
"Probably just the wind."
"And maybe it wasn't. What'd ya hear?"
Jon looked at the man, and then he looked back out into the darkness beyond the ship. Then, unbidden, his mind turned to Potot. Perhaps the small man was now a giant, able to look down on the lonely boat in the middle of the ocean and see everything: other ships that were passing just below the horizon line; the original lifeboat; and possibly the thing that had instigated everything. Maybe whatever evil that lurked here would be kept at bay by Potot's ever vigilant eye.
"I thought I heard a girl's laugh. But only for a moment. And like I said, it might have been the wind."
Andy didn't say anything for a while, but then he said slowly, "Aye. It might have been the wind."
Jon nodded and walked back to the helm.
The next day Jon found that Captain Burnside had vanished. However, unlike the previous captain of the Dog Star he left a note:
To my crew,
I'm sorry. I was trying to do the right thing. I was trying to be a proper Christian and help those in need, but it seems I've doomed us. I've survived every other danger the sea has ever afflicted me with, but it has never robbed me of those under my command. But now it has taken two stout men. It has conjured up a cursed ship and forced me to watch my beautiful boat burn. When the inquest comes, show them this. Tell them, and tell them truly, that it is my fault, and I have gone to pay for my shortcomings.
Captain Jeremy Michael Burnside
Jon found the note in the Captain’s cabin, and it was he alone that searched the ship. Hoping in vain that like the rest of the souls who had set foot on this accursed vessel, the Captain had not simply vanished. Working his way through every compartment, Jon walked through the cargo hold where Potot had gone that first day. It was cramped. It was dark. And there was something about the space that made Jon want to leave the ship as fast as possible. He scrambled out of there as fast as he could, but as he left he noted nine barrels at the far end of the hold. They were well secured and it would have taken a lot of time to wriggle his way over to them, but even at this distance they stood out because they were not the white oak of every other barrel he could see. They looked to be made of red oak. They were completely innocuous, but just looking at them made Jon hear that laugh.
Bolting out of the cargo hold, Jon gave Captain Burnside up as a goner, and he nearly knocked down several people, including Olaf, as he took his place back at the helm. From then on, Jon kept the ship on course: always east. After the end of Jon’s first day, Andy came to him and said, "Tt's time for you to sleep. I'll take the wheel."
Jon looked at him and listened to the wind. The laugh came again, like a Syrian song - it was sweet and full of promise, so Jon said, "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll sleep out here." Then, before Andy could argue, he sat down and added, "If you have to leave - even if it is just for a moment, wake me before you go. This ship needs a master at all times."
Andy looked at the man for a moment, and then just nodded. So for nine days and nights Jon kept watched over the ship that he found himself master over. Always at night, he would keep a lantern lit and his eyes glued to the compass. But always when the fist hint of dawn arrived, he shut his former Captain's compass and watched. Each morning was more glorious than the one that preceded it, and it was only at that time of day, sailing directly into the sun, that Jon dared to remove his hands from the wheel of the Dog Star. That was also the only time that he let himself think of the Philippines and Potot. Always the laugh was in the wind, except for those brief moments in the morning.
The morning of the tenth day did not bring the Strait of Gibraltar into sight, but the mosques and port of Casablanca blossomed on the horizon.
Jon sailed the Dog Star into port, and cheered along with his crew when the gangway banged down. It was a moment of joy that was short lived: as Captain Burnside had predicted, there was an inquest. Men dived the hull of the Dog Star and found nothing. Pointed questions were asked about what happened on the Sentinel, but the only thing Jon cared about happened a week later.
The insurance company came to count the barrels of alcohol in the hold of the Dog Star. Jon watched all morning as white oak barrel after countless barrel was hoisted out of the hold and inspected. The morning dragged into the afternoon, and the afternoon wore on until the sun started to fall into the ocean. It was then that Jon saw the top of one of the red barrels come out of the hold. As it rose, he heard more clearly than he ever had before the laughter on the wind. The nine barrels rose, and Jon, straining every muscle in his eye, tried to get a good look at them. In the fading light it was difficult, but for a moment, he thought he saw in the dust on the side of the barrels. Each barrel had a face on it; all of them men. Except for the last barrel. That one had the face of a woman. She had a plain, but not unattractive face with eyes that were spaced only slightly too far apart and hair that had been parted exactly down the middle. But far more ominous were the hand prints that were on the face. One on each cheek; they were too small to be anything other than an infant.
Suddenly the wind shifted and the dust on the barrels swirled away in a billowing cloud, leaving nothing behind. Then a voice came drifting from the direction of the ship. "Hey, something odd about those barrels. They feel light."
Jon pushed his way forward through the workers towards the barrels, and before anyone could stop him, he took a pry bar and began tearing off the top of the barrel that he thought held the woman. Nails creaked as they were pulled free, and Jon heard the insurance adjuster screaming at him to stop, but he ignored the man. Then, with a mighty heave, the top popped off the barrel and clattered to the pier. Jon's hand shot into the container looking for something. Anything, but his hand closed on air. He looked, but the barrel was, "Empty," Jon shouted.
"What?" said the adjuster. And he directed that the other barrels make of red oak be opened. Jon heard the screech of the wood giving way under the effort of the workmen, but he didn't bother to stay. He knew all the barrels would be empty.