Adventures of a Lad at Sea
Chapter 3: The Ghost Ship
Summary: On Ben's first overnight watch, our favorite Cabin Boy's mind is playing tricks on him. …Or is it? A Halloween Adventure!
Feedback: Yes, please!
Ben Cartwright snuggled deeper into the collar of his woolen coat, trying to shield his freezing nose from the harsh wind blowing across the deck. The late October air was sharp, stealing breath from crewmen's lungs. The moon and few stars that escaped the heavy cloud cover twinkled dimly, giving barely enough light to see the outline of his hand stretched out in front of his face.
In the middle of the night only a skeleton crew of essential workers were awake to maintain their course and speed. The normal night watchman, a thin, lanky man who answered to Slim Jim, caught a barking, breath-stealing cough three days earlier and had been holed up with the Sawbones in his Medical Office ever since. The crew of The Wanderer, always looking out for their fellow shipmates, swapped their shifts and duties to cover Slim Jim's assignments. Their youngest crewman was just as eager to help. Though Ben was excited to be covering his first solo watch and glad to help out, he wished Slim Jim would have picked a warmer night to be sick.
Or at least one that wasn't quite so creepy, Ben thought.
The men had tried to warn him, that in the overnight hours the eyes and mind played tricked in the dim light. While he listened and nodded at the appropriate times, nothing quite prepared him for the actual experience. He wasn't even sure if he would be able to describe how utterly alone he felt in the silence. At least there was only an hour of his watch left.
And only a little over three weeks before we're back in Boston for the winter!
Ben leaned against the rail, his elbows propping him up and his gloved hands under his chin. A huff of air escaped in a sigh as a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. A little over three weeks until he would see Elizabeth again.
Captain Stoddard, commander of The Wanderer and, for lack of a better word, Ben's savior had introduced his little Cabin Boy to his only daughter hoping to strike up a friendship between the two. A beauty of a child with an impish smile and curls of brown hair, Elizabeth's wit and imagination quickly drew Ben out of the quiet shell he formed around himself. In that first winter The Wanderer was docked in port, the two children grew and influenced each other. Together, they romped through the streets of Boston, finding more than their fair share of childish mischief and misdeeds. Liz's sense of adventure was tempered by Ben's cautious steps. The Cabin Boy's determination encouraged the dreamer in the Captain's daughter.
Even after Captain Stoddard set sail again with little Cartwright in tow, the two continued to keep in touch through letters, sending long descriptions of their thoughts and experiences. Over the long voyage they never felt apart as Ben wrote Liz more often than he sent word to his older brother. Now that he was so close to seeing his dear friend again, Ben couldn't stop his thoughts from all too often straying toward the pretty girl with sparkling amber eyes and dark, fan-like lashes.
Ben shook his head clear. As much as he enjoyed his wandering thoughts, he needed to keep his head about him. With every new letter he received, the tightness around his chest squeezed more tightly and the lurching flip of his stomach was more pronounced. He would ever be able to speak to the Captain about it. Maybe Cookie could explain the funny feelings he had about his favorite playmate every time he pictured her face.
A sudden, wailing cry broke the silence. Startled, Ben's elbow smacked on the railing, sending a shooting pain up the bone. He sucked in a breath through his teeth as his right hand cradled his elbow. Carefully he leaned forward, his head searching right and left across the water. A shiver ran down his spine.
There was nothing there.
Ben swallowed back a frustrated growl. Someone had to be playing a trick on him. Still nursing his smarting arm, he turned around, determined to catch him. "Alright," Ben forced courage into his tone. "Very funny, you got me. Now cut it out before I pitch you overboard!"
Something across the water flashed and caught his eye. Ben jumped, the breath caught in his throat. He could feel his heart thumping against his chest. Before he realized he was moving, a soft "oof" escaped his throat as his back collided with the wooden pole of the mast. He swallowed. "It's just a trick, Cartwright. Just one of the guys playing a stupid trick on you. Snap out of it, you baby!"
Ben turned again, his eyebrows knitted together with a determined scowl. He sucked in a lungful of air, letting it his slowly through his teeth. He was sure there were a few hidden crewmates having a good laugh at his expense.
He choked on the air in his lungs, his eyes wide as he froze. It was off in the distance on the starboard side, inching steadily closer. Dark and graceful, it seemed to float just above the surface.
It was a clipper ship, once proud and regal, now the sail hung clumsily on a jagged, broken mast. The dirty canvas shredded and drooping. The wooden sides were covered with barnacles and seaweed, the polish dulled by weather and time.
As it drifted closer, Ben's skin crawled with the prickly feeling of being watched. His hands trembled, his stomach churned. A gust of wind blew, nearly taking Ben's cap with it. His mouth drew into a fine line. He sucked in a deep lungful of air, drawing his chest up with more courage than he felt. A gust of wind picked up again carrying the cry of voices, a low and mournful sound that chilled his bones. Ben squinted as the ship passed, desperately searching the deck.
There wasn't a soul on board.
Just as suddenly as it appeared, the ship slipped quietly on, disappearing into the night. Ben wrapped his arms around the mast, holding himself upright. His chest heaved, aching as his lungs tried to pull in air. How in the world am I ever going to explain this in the morning? Even the voice in his head whined with disbelief.
All through the night, Ben kept his eyes on the horizon where he had last seen the ship. Not until the first golden streaks of light broke over the ocean did he release his clenched jaw.
"But I swear I really did see it!" Ben's voice jumped an octave, his eyebrows angrily scrunched together. The loud guffaws and chuckles were muffled and hidden behind morning coffee mugs. The sailors gathered around the morning table were enjoying the last few moments before the watched changed.
"Aye, Laddie," Collins said, a lanky rigger with bright cheeks and a pinched nose. "You think you seen it. But you said yourself there weren't no crew on board. You tell me how a ship's supposed to go someplace with no one to steer her?"
Ben opened his mouth but clamped it tightly shut when he had no answer for him.
"Now, now," a voice interrupted. "Let's hear the kid out." Ben turned his head and found Alan Tynes, a powder monkey who sailed under Captain Stoddard longer than most of the other crew had been alive. His eye twinkled, betraying his love to spin tall tales, especially in the weeks leading up to All Saints Day.
"Legend has it that a ship," Tynes continued. The Idlewind, was lost in these parts nearly two decades ago. Seems the Captain had just married himself a pretty little wife and to celebrate decided to ship out, but brought her along. Now we all know that that's your first mistake, bringin' a woman on board. And he set sail on Friday, March 13th, mistake number two. Now what he didn't know was that his first mate was in love with his wife as well. So overcome with rage and jealousy, he steered The Idlewind headfirst into a hurricane and she sank. Everyone on board was lost. Now she roams the sea, trying to find her way back to port."
The small group was lost to their thoughts for only a few moments before the final watch bell clanged. "C'mon, Men." Collins said quickly. Ellis'll have our heads if we don't shake a tail feather. You go get yourself a good morning's sleep, Ben. Things'll be a whole lot clearer when you wake up." The other men quickly drained their mugs and stood from the small table, still chuckling over the Cabin Boy's tale.
Ben sighed deeply, his chin propped up with a hand. He had to admit, if he had been one of the men, he wouldn't believe him either.
A soft hand on his shoulder brought him out of his thoughts. Peeking up from under the brim of his cap, he found Tynes looking kindly down at him. "Don't listen to them, Ben. If you saw it, you saw it. There are enough nay-sayers around without you doubting yourself." He gently thumped the small shoulders before walking off for this watch.
Ben's eyes followed the sailor, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Oh, it's true." Ben said quietly. "I can promise it's true."