Children of the Betsy B by Malcolm Jameson
I MIGHT never have heard of Sol Abernathy, if it hadn't been that
my cousin, George, summered in Dockport, year before last. The moment
George told me about him and his trick launch, I had the feeling that
it all had something to do with the "Wild Ships" or "B-Boats," as
some called them. Like everyone else, I had been speculating over the
origin of the mysterious, unmanned vessels that had played such havoc
with the Gulf Stream traffic. The suggestion that Abernathy's queer
boat might shed some light on their baffling behavior prodded my
curiosity to the highest pitch.
We all know, of course, of the thoroughgoing manner in which
Commodore Elkins and his cruiser division recently rid the seas of
that strange menace. Yet I cannot but feel regret, that he could not
have captured at least one of the Wild Ships, if only a little boat,
rather than sink them all ruthlessly, as he did. Who knows? Perhaps
an examination of one of them might have revealed that Dr. Horatio
Dilbiss had wrought a greater miracle than he ever dreamed of.
At any rate, I lost no time in getting up to the Maine coast. At
Dockport, finding Sol Abernathy was simplicity itself. The first
person asked pointed him out to me. He was sitting carelessly on a
bollard near the end of the pier, basking in the sunshine, doing
nothing in particular. It was clear at first glance that he was one
of the type generally referred to as "local character." He must have
been well past sixty, a lean, weathered little man, with a quizzical
eye and a droll manner of speech that, under any other circumstances,
might have led me to suspect he was spoofing--yet remembering the
strange sequel to the Dockport happenings, the elements of his yarn
have a tremendous significance. I could not judge from his language
where he came from originally, but he was clearly not a Down Easter.
The villagers could not remember the time, though, when he had
not been in Dockport. To them he was no enigma, but simply a
local fisherman, boatman, and general utility man about the harbor
I introduced myself--told him about my cousin, and my interest in
his boat, the Betsy B. He was tight-mouthed at first, said he
was sick and tired of being kidded about the boat. But my
twenty-dollar bill must have convinced him I was no idle josher.
"We-e-e-ll," he drawled, squinting at me appraisingly through a
myriad of fine wrinkles, "it's about time that somebody that really
wants to know got around to astin' me about the Betsy B. She
was a darlin' little craft, before she growed up and ran away to sea.
I ain't sure, myself, whether I ought to be thankful or sore at that
perfesser feller over on Quiquimoc. Anyhow, it was a great
experience, even if it did cost a heap. Like Kiplin' says, I learned
about shippin' from her."
"Do I understand you to say," I asked, "that you no longer have
"Yep! She went--a year it'll be, next Thursday--takin' 'er Susan
This answered my question, but shed little light. Susan? I saw I
would do better if I let him ramble along in his own peculiar
"Well, tell me," I asked, "what was she like--at first--how big?
>"The Betsy B was a forty-foot steam launch, and I got
'er secondhand. She wasn't young, by any means--condemned navy craft,
she was--from off the old Georgia. But she was handy, and I
used 'er to ferry folks from the islands hereabouts into Dockport,
and for deep-sea fishin'.
"She was a dutiful craft--" he started, but broke off with a dry
chuckle, darting a shrewd sideways look at me, sizing me up. I was
listening intently. "Ye'll have to get used to me talkin' of 'er like
a human," he explained, apparently satisfied I was not a scoffer,
"'cause if ever a boat had a soul, she had. Well, anyhow, as I
said, she was a dutiful craft--did what she was s'posed to do and
never made no fuss about it. She never wanted more'n the rightful
amount of oil--I changed 'er from a coal-burner to an oil-burner,
soon as I got 'er--and she'd obey 'er helm just like you'd expect a
"Then I got a call one day over to Quiquimoc. That perfesser
feller, Doc Dilbiss, they call him, wanted to have his mail brought,
and when I got there, he ast me to take some things ashore for 'im,
to the express office. The widder Simpkins' boy was over there
helpin' him, and they don't come any more wuthless. The Doc has some
kind of labertory over there--crazy place. One time he mixed up a
settin' of eggs, and hatched 'em! Made 'em himself, think of that! If
you want to see a funny-lookin' lot of chickens, go over there some
"I shall," I said. I wanted him to stay with the Betsy B
account, not digress. His Doc Dilbiss is no other than Dr. Horatio
Dilbiss, the great pioneer in vitalizing synthetic organisms. I
understand a heated controversy is still raging in the scientific
world over his book, "The Secret of Life," but there is no doubt he
has performed some extraordinary feats in animating his creations of
the test tube. But to keep Abernathy to his theme, I asked, "What did
the Simpkins boy do?"
"This here boy comes skippin' down the dock, carryin' a gallon
bottle of some green-lookin' stuff, and then what does he do but trip
over a cleat on the stringer and fall head over heels into the
Betsy B. That bottle banged up against the boiler and just
busted plumb to pieces. The green stuff in it was sorta oil and stunk
like all forty. It spread out all over the insides before you could
say Jack Robinson, and no matter how hard I scoured and mopped, I
couldn't get up more'n a couple of rags full of it.
"You orter seen the Doc. He jumped up and down and pawed the
air--said the work of a lifetime was all shot--I never knew a mild
little feller like him could cuss so. The only thing I could see to
do was to get outa there and take the Simpkins boy with me--it looked
sure like the Doc was a-goin' to kill him.
"Naturally, I was pretty disgusted myself. Anybody can tell you I
keep clean boats--I was a deep-sea sailor once upon a time, was
brought up right, and it made me durned mad to have that green oil
stickin' to everything. I took 'er over to my place, that other
little island you see there--" pointing outside the harbor to a small
island with a couple of houses and an oil tank on it--"and tried to
clean 'er up. I didn't have much luck, so knocked off, and for
two--three days I used some other boats I had, thinkin' the stink
would blow away.
"When I got time to get back to the Betsy B, you coulda
knocked me down with a feather when I saw she was full of
vines--leastways, I call 'em vines. I don't mean she was full of
vines, but they was all over 'er insides, clingin' close to the hull,
like ivy, and runnin' up under the thwarts, and all over the
cylinders and the boiler. In the cockpit for'ard, where the wheel
was, I had a boat compass in a little binnacle. Up on top of it was a
lumpy thing--made me think of a gourd--all connected up with the
"I grabbed that thing and tried to pull it off. I tugged and I
hauled, but it wouldn't come. But what do you think happened?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," I said, seeing that he expected an
"She rared up and down, like we was outside in a force-six gale,
and whistled!" Abernathy broke off and glared at me
belligerently, as if he half expected me to laugh at him. Of course,
I did no such thing. It was not a laughing matter, as the world was
to find out a little later.
"And that was stranger than ever," he continued, after a pause,
"cause I'd let 'er fires die out when I tied 'er up. Somehow she had
steam up. I called to Joe Binks, my fireman, and bawled him out for
havin' lit 'er off without me tellin' him to. But he swore up and
down that he hadn't touched 'er. But to get back to the gourd
thing--as soon as I let it go, she quieted down. I underran those
vines to see where they come from. I keep callin' 'em vines, but
maybe you'd call 'em wires. They were hard and shiny, like wires, and
tough--only they branched every whichaway like vines, or the veins in
a maple leaf. There was two sets of 'em, one set runnin' out of the
gourd thing on the binnacle was all mixed up with the other set
comin' out of the bottom between the boiler and the engine.
"She didn't mind my foolin' with the vines, and didn't cut up
except whenever I'd touch the gourd arrangement up for'ard. The vines
stuck too close to whatever they lay on to pick up, but I got a
pinch-bar and pried. I got some of 'em up about a inch and slipped a
wedge under. I worked on 'em with a chisel, and then a hacksaw. I cut
a couple of 'em and by the Lord Harry--if they didn't grow back
together again whilst I was cuttin' on the third one. I gave up! I
just let it go, I was that dogtired.
"Before I left, I took a look into the firebox and saw she had the
burner on slow. I turned it off, and saw the water was out of the
glass. I secured the boiler, thinkin' how I'd like to get my hands on
whoever lit it off.
"Next day, I had a fishin' party to take out in my schooner, and
altogether, what with one thing and another, it was a week before I
got back to look at the Betsy B. Now, over at my place, I have
a boathouse and a dock, and behind the boathouse is a fuel oil tank,
as you can see. This day, when I went down to the dock, what should I
see but a pair of those durned vines runnin' up the dock like
'lectric cables. And the smoke was pourin' out of 'er funnel like
everything. I ran on down to 'er and tried to shut off the oil,
'cause I knew the water was low, but the valve was all jammed with
the vine wires, and I couldn't do a thing with it.
"I found out those vines led out of 'er bunkers, and mister,
believe it or not, but she was a-suckin' oil right out of my big
storage tank! Those vines on the dock led straight from the Betsy
B into the oil tank. When I found out I couldn't shut off the
oil, I jumped quick to have a squint at the water gauge, and my eyes
nearly run out on stems when I saw it smack at the right level. Do
you know, that dog-gone steam launch had thrown a bunch of them vines
around the injector and was a-feedin' herself? Fact! And sproutin'
from the gun'le was another bunch of 'em, suckin' water from
"But wouldn't she salt herself?" I asked of him, knowing that salt
water is not helpful to marine boilers.
"No, sir-ree! That just goes to show you how smart she was gettin'
to be. Between the tank and the injector, durned if she hadn't grown
another fruity thing, kinda like a watermelon. It had a hole in one
side, and there was a pile of salt by it and more spillin' out. She
had rigged 'erself some sorta filter--or distiller. I drew off a
little water from a gauge cock, and let it cool down and tasted it.
Sweet as you'd want!
"I was kinda up against it. If she was dead set and determined to
keep steam up all the time, and had dug right into the big tank, I
knew it'd run into money. I might as well be usin' 'er. These vines
I've been tellin' you about weren't in the way to speak of; they hung
close to the planks like the veins on the back of your hand. Seein'
'er bunkers was full to the brim, I got out the hacksaw and cut the
vines to the oil tank, watchin' 'er close all the time to see whether
she'd buck again.
"From what I saw of 'er afterward, I think she had a hunch she was
gettin' ready to get under way, and she was r'arin' to go. I heard a
churnin' commotion in the water, and durned if she wasn't already
kicking her screw over! just as I got the second vine cut away, she
snaps her lines, and if I hadn't made a flyin' leap, she'd a gone off
"I'm tellin' you, mister, that first ride was a whole lot like
gettin' aboard a unbroken colt. At first she wouldn't answer her
helm. I mean, I just couldn't put the rudder over, hardly, without
lyin' down and pushin' with everything I had on the wheel. And Joe
Binks, my fireman, couldn't do nuthin' with 'er neither--said the
throttled fly wide open every time he let go of it.
"Comin' outa my place takes careful doin'--there's a lot of sunken
ledges and one sandbar to dodge. I says to myself, I've been humorin'
this baby too much. I remembered she was tender about that gourd
thing, so the next time I puts the wheel over and she resists, I
cracks down on the gourd with a big fid I'd been splicin' some
five-inch line with. She blurted 'er whistle, and nearly stuck her
nose under, but she let go the rudder. Seein' that I was in for
something not much diffrunt from bronco bustin', I cruised 'er up and
down outside the island, puttin' 'er through all sorts a turns and at
various speeds. I only had to hit 'er four or five times. After that,
all I had to do was to raise the fid like I was a-goin' to, and she'd
behave. She musta had eyes or something in that gourd contraption. I
still think that's where her brains were. It had got some bigger,
"I didn't have much trouble after that, for a while. I strung some
live wires across the dock--I found she wouldn't cross that with 'er
feelers--and managed to put 'er on some sort of rations about the
oil. But I went down one night, 'round two in the mornin', and found
'er with a full head of steam. I shut everything down, leavin' just
enough to keep 'er warm, and went for'ard and whacked 'er on the
head, just for luck. It worked, and as soon as we had come to some
sorta understanding, as you might say, I was glad she had got the way
"What I mean is, after she was broke, she was a joy. She learned
her way over to Dockport, and, after a coupla, trips, I never had to
touch wheel or throttle. She'd go back and forth, never makin' a
mistake. When you think of the fogs we get around here, that's
something. And, o' course, she learned the Rules of the Road in no
time. She knew which side of a buoy to take--and when it came
to passin' other boats, she had a lot better judgment than I
"Keepin' 'er warm all the time took some oil, but it didn't really
cost me any more, 'cause I was able to let Joe go. She didn't need a
regular engineer, nohow--in fact, her and Joe fought so, I figured
it'd be better without him. Then I took 'er out and taught 'er how to
Abernathy stopped and looked at me cautiously. I think this must
be the place that some of his other auditors walked out on him, or
started joshing, because he had the slightly embarrassed look of a
man who feels that perhaps he had gone a little too far. Remembering
the uncanny way in which the Wild Ships had stalked the world's main
steamer lanes, my mood was one of intense interest.
"Yes," I said, "go on."
"I'd mark the courses in pencil on the chart, without any figures,
and prop it up in front of the binnacle. Well, that's all there was
to it. She'd shove off, and follow them courses, rain, fog, or shine.
In a week or so, it got so I'd just stick a chart up there and go on
back and loll in the stern sheets, like any payin' passenger.
"If that'd been all, I'd a felt pretty well off, havin' a trained
steam launch that'd fetch and carry like a dog. I didn't trust 'er
enough to send 'er off anywhere by herself, but she coulda done it.
All my real troubles started when I figured I'd paint 'er. She was
pretty rusty--lookin', still had the old navy-gray paint on--what was
left of it.
"I dragged 'er up on the marine railway I got over there, scraped
'er down and got ready to doll 'er up. The first jolt I got was when
I found she was steel, 'stead of wood. And it was brand, spankin' new
plate, not a pit or a rust spot anywhere. She'd been pumpin' sea
water through those vines, eatin' away the old rotten plankin' and
extractin' steel from the water. Somebody--I've fergotten who
'twas--told me there's every element in sea water if you can get it
out. Leastways, that's how I account for it-she was wood when I
bought 'er. Later on you'll understand better why I say that-she
could do some funny things.
"The next thing that made me sit up and take notice was the amount
of paint it took. I've painted hundreds of boats in my time, and know
to the pint what's needed. Well I had to send to town for more; I was
shy about five gallons. Come to think about it, she did look big for
a fortyfooter, so I got out a tape and laid it on 'er. She was
fifty-eight feet over all! And she'd done it so gradual I never even
"But--to get along. I painted 'er nice and white, with a red
bottom and a catchy green trim, along the rail and canopy. We
polished 'er bright--work and titivated 'er generally. She did look
nice, and new as you please--and in a sense she was, with the bottom
I was tellin' you about. You'd a died a-laughin' though, if you'd
been with me the next day, when we come over here to Dockport. The
weather was fine and the pier was full of summer people. As soon as
we come up close, they began cheerin' and callin' out to me how swell
the Betsy B looked in 'er new colors. Well, there was nothin'
out of the way about that. I went on uptown and 'tended to my
business, came back after a while, and we shoved off.
"But do you think that blamed boat would leave there right away?
No, sir! Like I said, lately I'd taken to climbin' in the stern
sheets and givin' 'er her head. But that day, we hadn't got much over
a hundred yards beyond the end of the pier, when what does she do but
put 'er rudder over hard and come around in an admiral's sweep with
wide-open throttle, and run back the length of the pier. She traipsed
up and down a coupla times before I tumbled to what was goin' on. It
was them admirin' people on the dock and the summer tourists cheerin'
that went to 'er head.
"All the time, people was yellin' to me to get my wild boat outa
there, and the constable threatenin' to arrest me 'cause I must be
drunk to charge up and down the harbor thataway. You see, she'd
gotten so big and fast she was settin' up plenty of waves with 'er
gallivantin', and all the small craft in the place was tearin' at
their lines, and bangin' into each other something terrible. I jumped
up for'ard and thumped 'er on the skull once or twice, 'fore I could
pull 'er away from there.
"From then on, I kept havin' more'n more to worry about. There was
two things, mainly--her growin', and the bad habits she took up. When
she got to be seventy feet, I come down one mornin' and found a new
bulkhead across the stern section. It was paper-thin, but it was
steel, and held up by a mesh of vines an each side. In two days more
it was as thick, and looked as natural, as any other part of the
boat. The funniest part of that bulkhead, though, was that it put out
rivet heads--for appearance, I reckon, because it was as solid as
solid could be before that.
"Then, as she got to drawin' more water, she begun lengthenin' her
ladders. They was a coupla little two-tread ladders--made it easier
for the womenfolks gettin' in and out. I noticed the treads gettin'
thicker V thicker. Then, one day, they just split. Later on, she
separated them, evened 'em up. Those was the kind of little tricks
she was up to all the time she was growin'.
"I coulda put up with 'er growin' and all--most any feller would
be tickled to death to have a launch that'd grow into a steam
yacht--only she took to runnin' away. One mornin' I went down, and
the lines was hangin' off the dock, parted like they'd been chafed in
two. I cranked my motor dory and started out looking for the Betsy
B. I sighted 'er after a while, way out to sea, almost to the
"Didja ever have to go down in the pasture and bridle a wild colt?
Well, it was like that. She waited, foxylike, lyin' to, until I got
almost alongside, and then, doggone if she didn't take out, hell bent
for Halifax, and run until she lost 'er steam! I never woulda caught
'er if she hadn't run out of oil. At that, I had to tow 'er back, and
a mean job it was, with her throwing 'er rudder first this way and
that. I finally got plumb mad and went alongside and whanged the
livin' daylights outa that noodle of hers.
"She was docile enough after that, but sulky, if you can imagine
how a sulky steam launch does. I think she was sore over the beatin'
I gave 'er. She'd pilot 'erself, all right, but she made some awful
bad landin's when we'd come in here, bumpin' into the pier at full
speed and throwin' me off my feet when I wasn't lookin' for it. It
surprised me a lot, 'cause I knew how proud she was--but I guess she
was that anxious to get back at me, she didn't care what the folks on
the dock thought.
"After that first time, she ran away again two or three times, but
she allus come back of 'er own accord--gettin' in to the dock dead
tired, with nothing but a smell of oil in her bunkers. The fuel bill
was gettin' to be a pain.
"The next thing that come to plague me was a fool government
inspector. Said he'd heard some bad reports and had come to
investigate! Well, he had the Betsy B's pedigree in a little
book, and if you ever saw a worried look on a man, you shoulda seen
him while he was comparin' 'er dimensions and specifications with
what they was s'posed to be. I tried to explain the thing to
him--told him he could come any week and find something new. He was
short and snappy--kept writin' in his little book--and said that I
was a-goin' to hear from this."
>"You can see I couldn't help the way the Betsy B
was growin'. But what got my goat was that I told him she had only
one boiler, and when we went to look, there was two, side by side,
neatly cross-connected, with a stop on each one, and another valve in
the main line. I felt sorta hacked over that--it was something I
didn't know, even. She'd done it overnight.
"The inspector feller said I'd better watch my step, and went off,
shakin' his head. He as much as gave me to understand that he thought
my Betsy B papers was faked and this here vessel stole. The
tough part of that idea, for him, was that there never had been
anything like 'er built. I forgot to tell you that before he got
there, she'd grown a steel deck over everything, and was startin' out
in a big way to be a regular ship.
"I was gettin' to the point when I wished she'd run away and stay.
She kept on growin', splittin' herself up inside into more and more
compartments. That woulda been all right, if there'd been any
arrangement I could use, but no human would design such a ship. No
doors, or ports, or anything. But the last straw was the lifeboat.
That just up and took the cake.
"Don't get me wrong. It's only right and proper for a yacht, or
anyway, a vessel as big as a yacht, to have a lifeboat. She
was a hundred and thirty feet long then, and rated one. But any
sailor man would naturally expect it to be a wherry, or a cutter at
one outside. But, no, she had to have a steam launch, no less!
"It was a tiny little thing, only about ten feet long, when she
let me see it first. She had built a contraption of steel plates on
'er upper deck that I took to be a spud-locker, only I mighta known
she wasn't interested in spuds. It didn't have no door, but it did
have some louvers for ventilation, looked like. Tell you the truth, I
didn't notice the thing much, 'cept to see it was there. Then one
night, she rips off the platin', and there, in its skids, was this
little steam launch!
"It was all rigged out with the same vine layout that the Betsy
B had runnin' all over 'er, and had a name on it--the Susan
B. It was a dead ringer for the big one, if you think back and
remember what she looked like when she come outa the navy yard. Well,
when the little un was about three weeks old--and close to twenty
feet long, I judge--the Betsy B shoved off one mornin', in
broad daylight, without so much as by-your-leave, and goes around on
the outside of my island. She'd tore up so much line gettin' away for
'er night jamborees, I'd quit moorin' 'er. I knew she'd come back,
'count o' my oil tank. She'd hang onto the dock by her own vines.
"I run up to the house and put a glass on 'er. She was steamin'
along slow, back and forth. Then she reached down with a sorta crane
she'd growed and picked that Susan B up, like you'd lift a
kitten by the scruff o' the neck, and sets it in the water. Even
where I was, I could hear the Susan B pipin', shrill-like.
Made me think of a peanut-wagon whistle. I could see the steam
jumpin' out of 'er little whistle. I s'pose it was scary for 'er,
gettin' 'er bottom wet, the first time. But the Betsy B kept
goin' along, towin' the little one by one of 'er vines.
"She'd do something like that two or three times a week, and if I
wasn't too busy, I'd watch 'em, the Betsy B steamin' along,
and the little un cavortin' around 'er, cuttin' across 'er bows or
a-chasin' 'er. One day, the Susan B was chargin' around my
little cove, by itself, the Betsy B quiet at the dock. I think
she was watchin' with another gourd thing she'd sprouted in the
crow's nest. Anyhow, the Susan B hit that sandbar pretty hard,
and stuck there, whistlin' like all get out. The Betsy B cast
off and went over there. And, boy, did she whang that little un on
"I'm gettin' near to the end--now, and it all come about 'count of
this Susan B. She was awful wild, and no use that I could see
as a lifeboat, 'cause she'd roll like hell the minute any human'd try
to get in 'er--it'd throw 'em right out into the water! I was gettin'
more fed up every day, what with havin' to buy more oil all the time,
and not gettin' much use outa my boats.
"One day, I was takin' out a picnic party in my other motorboat,
and I put in to my cove to pick up some bait. Just as I was goin' in,
that durned Susan B began friskin' around in the cove, and
comes chargin' over and collides with me, hard. It threw my
passengers all down, and the women got their dresses wet and all
dirty. I was good and mad. I grabbed the Susan B with a boat
hook and hauled her alongside, then went to work on her binnacle with
a steerin' oar. You never heard such a commotion. I said a while ago
she sounded like a peanut whistle--well, this time it was more like a
calliope. And to make it worse, the Betsy B, over at the dock
sounds off with her whistle--a big chimed one, them days. And when I
see 'er shove off and start over to us, I knew friendship had
"That night she ups and leaves me. I was a-sleepin' when the phone
rings, 'bout two A.M. It was the night watchman over't the oil
company's dock. Said my Betsy B was alongside and had hoses
into their tanks, but nobody was on board, and how much should he
give 'er. I yelled at him to give 'er nuthin'--told him to take an ax
and cut 'er durned hoses. I jumped outa my bunk and tore down to the
dock. Soon as I could get the danged motor started I was on my way
over there. But it didn't do no good. Halfway between here and there,
I meets 'er, comin' out, makin' knots. She had 'er runnin' lights on,
legal and proper, and sweeps right by me--haughty as you
please--headin' straight out, Yarmouth way. If she saw me, she didn't
give no sign.
"Next day I got a bill for eight hundred tons of oil--she musta
filled up every one of 'er compartments--and it mighty near broke me
to pay it. I was so relieved to find 'er gone, I didn't even report
it. That little launch was what did it--I figured if they was one,
they was bound to be more. I never did know where she got the idea;
nothin' that floats around here's big enough to carry lifeboats."
"Did Dr. Dilbiss ever look at her," I asked, "after she started to
"That Doc was so hoppin' mad over the Simpkins brat spillin' his
'Oil of Life' as he called it, that he packed up and went away right
after. Some o' the summer people do say he went to Europe--made a
crack about some dictator where he was, and got put in jail over
there. I don't know about that, but he's never been back."
"And you've never seen or heard of the Betsy B since?" I
queried, purposely making it a leading question.
"Seen 'er, no, but heard of 'er plenty. First time was about three
months after she left. That was when the Norwegian freighter claimed
he passed a big ship and a smaller one with a whale between 'em. Said
the whale was half cut up, and held by a lot of cables. They come up
close, but the ships didn't answer hails, or put up their numbers. I
think that was my Betsy B, and the Susan B, growed up
halfway. That Betsy B could make anything she wanted outa sea
water, 'cept oil. But she was smart enough, I bet, to make whale oil,
if she was hungry enough.
"The next thing I heard was the time the Ruritania met 'er.
No question about that--they read 'er name. The Ruritania was
a-goin' along, in the mid-watch it was, and the helmsman kept sayin'
it was takin' a lot of starboard helm to hold 'er up. 'Bout that
time, somebody down on deck calls up there's a ship alongside,
hangin' to the starboard quarter. They kept hollerin' down to the
ship, wantin' to know what ship, and all that, and gettin' no answer.
You oughta read about that. Then she shoved off in the dark and ran
away. The Ruritania threw a spot on 'er stern and wrote down
"That mightn't prove it--anybody can paint a name--but after she'd
gone, they checked up and found four holes in the side, and more'n a
thousand tons of bunker oil gone. That Betsy B had doped out
these other ships must have oil, and bein' a ship herself, she knew
right where they stored it. She just snuck up alongside in the middle
of the night, and worked 'er vines in to where the oil was.
"Things like that kept happenin', and the papers began talkin'
about the Wild Ships. They sighted dozens of 'em, later, all named
'Something W--Lucy B, Anna B, Trixie B, oh, any number--which
in itself is another mystery. Where would a poor dumb steam launch
learn all them names?"
"You said she was ex-navy," I reminded him.
"That may be it," he admitted. "Well, that's what started the
newspapers to callin' lern the B-Boats. 'Course, I can't deny that
when they ganged up in the Gulf Stream and started in robbin' tankers
of their whole cargo, and in broad daylight, too, it was goin' too
far. They was all too fast to catch. Commodore What's-his-name just
had to sink 'er, I reckon. The papers was ridin' him hard. But I can
tell you that there wasn't any real meanness in my Betsy
B--spoiled maybe--but not mean. That stuff they printed 'bout the
octopuses on the bridges, with long danglin' tentacles wasn't nothin'
but that gourd brain and vines growed up."
He sighed a deep, reminiscent sigh, and made a gesture indicating
he had told all there was to tell.
"You are confident, then," I asked, "that the so-called B-Boats
were the children of your Betsy B?"
"Must be," he answered, looking down ruefully at his patched
overalls and shabby shoes. "'Course, all I know is what I read in the
papers, 'bout raidin' them tankers. But that'd be just like their
mammy. She sure was a hog for oil!"