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Title: Children of the Betsy B
Author: Malcolm Jameson
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eBook No.: 0608361.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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Children of the Betsy B
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 there.

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
the launch?"

"Yep! She went--a year it'll be, next Thursday--takin' 'er Susan
with W."

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 style.

"Well, tell me," I asked, "what was she like--at first--how big?
How powered?"

_"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 boat to.

"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 day."

"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 vines.

"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 overside.

"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
without me.

"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, too.

"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 she

"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 have.

"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
use charts."

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 horizon.

"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

"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 the koko!

"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 ceased!

"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

"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 the name.

"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!"


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