Read Chapter V - Bob Brace's story of A Runaway Brig / An Accidental Cruise, free online book, by James Otis, on ReadCentral.com.

As a matter of course the boys were eager to hear the sailor’s story; but no one asked any questions, believing he would relate the particulars of what was evidently a disaster when he had recovered his strength sufficiently to spin a lengthy yarn.

And in this they were not mistaken.

Before sunset he was able to sit up, and greatly to the satisfaction of his companions he volunteered the information they were so impatient to gain.

“Most likely you’re wantin’ to know how Bob Brace, able seaman, got pulled down to a reg’lar bag of bones like this?” he said toward the close of the afternoon while the boys were gathered around him.

“I reckon you’ve been wrecked,” Jim replied, “an’ we’d like to know about it, but don’t want you to talk till you’re feelin’ all right.”

“A sailorman picks up mighty quick after he’s where he can get hold of a well-filled mess-kid, an’ when its cabin grub that’s poured inter him the rarity of the thing helps out amazin’.  I reckon I’m the only one of the Trade Wind’s crew that’s alive.  We sailed from New York for Cardiff five weeks ago, an’ had the best kind of weather for twenty days when a reg’lar nor’-easter struck us the afternoon of Thursday, nine days past as near as I can figger.  There was time to get in the royals an’ to’gallant sails before night; but the gale kept growin’ worse so the spanker was downed, the main course hauled up an’ furled, an’ she was put fair before the wind, which had been workin’ around to the east’ard.  By the next mornin’ we was snugged down with nothin’ but the main-topsail, foresail an’ fore-stays’l showin’, an’ the old hooker duffin’ into it mighty hard.

“It looked as if she’d weather it all right till eight bells on Friday mornin’, when every thread of canvas was blown off the spars, leavin’ us wallowin’ in a chop sea that stove the bulwarks an’ swept the decks clean before we could heave her to on the port tack by settin’ the lower main-tops’l.  By this time the fo’castle was drownded out, an’ all hands bunked in the cabin till Saturday, when there was no more watches below, for she was takin’ water so fast that everybody up to the captain had to stand by the pump.  We managed to keep the old barkey afloat till Sunday, when the long-boat an’ yawl - the gig had been stove - were launched.

“There ain’t much use to tell the rest, for it’s like what you must ‘a’ heard many times.  We in the yawl had six gallons of water, an’ them in the long-boat had a bag of bread.  Before we could divide the stores the bark went down, one of her spars striking the long-boat, an’ we never saw a soul of ’em ag’in.  I reckon pretty nigh every one was killed by the ruffle.  The yawl held six, all told, an’ I’m the last.  The lack of food wasn’t so bad till the water give out, an’ then the weakest went first.  Yesterday I threw the last body overboard, an’ this mornin’ after it fell calm your craft hove in sight.

“I didn’t believe I could lift an oar; but it was life or death for sure, an’ I managed to do it, losin’ my head entirely after makin’ fast to the main-chains an’ not gettin’ any answer to the hail.  That’s the whole of the story.  It ain’t very much in the tellin’; but, lads, the livin’ of it was somethin’ a man don’t like to think about very long at a time.  The question to be settled now is, where are we, an’ what’s the course to the nearest port?  Did you find anything below that looked like a log-book?”

“We didn’t hunt round in the cabin very much, but if it’ll do any good we’ll overhaul things now,” Jim replied, the sense of companionship which had come when Bob Brace revived sufficiently to tell his story causing him to lose a certain portion of his fear at going below.

“The log-book would tell us where the brig was when the crew abandoned her, an’ from that we might shape some kind of a course.  Help me over to the wheel, an’ I can manage to hold her steady while you boys are rummagin’.”

The knowledge that immediate action was necessary to save their lives, as well as what might prove to be a valuable cargo, had a beneficial effect on Brace, and Harry fancied he could see him growing stronger each moment.  With but little aid he seated himself near the wheel, after which the boys went below to make a thorough search of the saloon and state-rooms.

The approach of night had already filled the cabin with gloom, and to dispel this Jim lighted the swinging lamps, thus giving to the interior a less sinister appearance.  The sword still remained on the floor, however, and all felt that this reminder of what had possibly been a deadly encounter must be removed before the place could be divested of its horrors.

“It ain’t anything but a piece of steel, no matter what’s been done with it,” Jim said by way of reassuring himself; and then, lifting the weapon very gingerly, he threw it under the berth in one of the state-rooms, closing and locking the door quickly, as if fearing that by some supernatural agency it might spring upon him.

This horror of an inanimate object may sound foolish when read in print with nothing in one’s surroundings to inspire terror; but if the situation of these three boys be taken into consideration, together with the mystery attending the abandonment of the brig, very many excuses can be found for their superstitious fears.

The search was made thoroughly, but no log could be found.  The slate, on which the brig’s position had been partially worked out, was the only article which might have thrown any light on the matter, and this Bob Brace could not understand.

“You see I ain’t much of a navigator at the best, an’ this bit of figgerin’ beats me,” he said when the boys returned with the fruit of their labor.  “If we can’t get any idée of our true position we’ll have to make a guess at it.  How far do you reckon this ’ere brig has sailed since you come aboard?”

Jim frankly confessed that he was ignorant on that point.  He described the position of the canvas when they found the Bonita, and the probable time she had been under shortened sail; but this was not very valuable information.  The statement was hardly concluded when Bob interrupted him by asking angrily, as his gaze fell upon some object forward: 

“Wasn’t you in trouble enough when the brig carried you off but that it must be made worse by turnin’ that hatch over?”

“We didn’t do it,” Harry replied quickly.  “It was in that position when we came aboard.”

“Then it’s no wonder the crew took to the boats,” and Bob wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his coat, apparently as much disturbed by this trifling matter as the boys had been at the sight of the sword.

“Why?” Jim asked, disturbed in no slight degree by the look of fear on the old sailor’s face.  “How can a little thing like that do any harm?”

“If you’d seen as much as I have you wouldn’t call it a little thing,” Bob replied in a solemn tone.  “I had a messmate in the old Sea Queen what shipped on a English bark, an’ the second day out one of the green hands turned the main hatch bottom up.  What happened?  Why, in less’n a month the bark turned turtle on ’em, an’ all but four went to Davy Jones’ Locker.  It’s a bad sign, lads, an’ one that I never knew to fail!”

“What is it a sign of?” Harry asked impatiently.

“Didn’t I jes’ tell you?  It’s a sign that this ’ere craft will turn bottom up afore reachin’ port, an’ we’re in big luck to have the Trade Wind’s yawl hangin’ at the davits.”

“Well, we’ll fix that mighty sudden!” And Jim ran forward as he spoke; but the heavy hatch was more than he could lift unaided.

“It won’t do any good to turn it now, for the mischief has been done,” Bob said in a lugubrious tone; “but you boys had better go for’ard an’ help him set it ship-shape.”

Harry and Walter did as was suggested; but they did not move with alacrity, for the old sailor’s superstitious fears had plunged them again into deepest despair.

“Don’t act as if you’d lost your best friend,” Jim said in a whisper when the two came forward.  “It’s only a mess of sailor’s nonsense.”

“But he says the sign always comes true!” Walter replied mournfully.

“That don’t make it so.  If every fore-hatch what got turned upside down sunk a ship there wouldn’t be many vessels afloat.  He’s all in a heap through bein’ starved so long, an’ most likely doesn’t know more’n half of what he’s talkin’ about.”

The boys refused to be comforted.  It was but natural that they should believe the eldest member of the party, and he an old sailor, rather than the youngest, more especially as the ominous prediction seemed to be in keeping with all that had happened since they boarded the brig.

It was a mournful-looking group which clustered around the wheel when the sun descended behind the waste of waters, for even Jim could not appear cheerful while his companions were so gloomy; and as the darkness settled down over brig and sea Bob repeated the story of his sufferings in the open boat, until the sighing of the light wind through the rigging sounded in their ears like the moaning of some unearthly visitant.

“What are you goin’ to do about standin’ watch?” Jim asked, in order to change the dismal current of thought.

“You and I’ll have to take the most of it,” replied Bob.  “I don’t know as we can do any better than keep her steady as she goes till some kind of a course is figgered out, for we ain’t makin’ much headway with this wind.  I’ll take Harry in my watch an’ give you Walter; then if we should have luck enough to sight a craft, a flare can be started without the helmsman’s leavin’ the wheel.  Hunt in the pantry for alcohol - you’ll find some there; get a basin outer the galley, an’ a bunch of oakum from the fo’castle.  We’ll have everything ready to signal, an’ if a ship does heave in sight there won’t be any time lost.”

Jim didn’t fancy searching through the deserted forecastle and cabin in the night; but it was necessary some one should set an example of courage to Harry and Walter, and he went below without a show of hesitation, returning a short time later with the materials Bob desired.

When the flare was arranged to the old sailor’s satisfaction, he proposed that Jim should stand the first watch, and with a few words of advice relative to the method of using the signal, in case it should become necessary, he and Harry went below, leaving the other two sole occupants of the deck.