"She's too ancient to be worth much," said Mender.
"Why are you men standing there in the cold, babbling?" said Roxanna, turning and urging the men on impatiently. "Let us hurry before another storm sweeps in."
Making their way over the ice as fast as possible until they reached the deserted ship, they found that the ice had piled against the hull, making it easy for them to reach the upper bulwarks and climb over the gunwales. Roxanna, her husband, and the crewmen found themselves standing on the quarterdeck, which was covered by a thin layer of ice.
Mender stared around at the desolation and shook his head as if bewildered. "Amazing that her hull wasn't crushed by the ice."
"I never thought I'd be standing on the deck of an English East Indiaman," one of the crewmen muttered, his eyes reflecting apprehension. "Certainly not one built before my grandfather was born."
"She's a good-sized ship," said Mender slowly. "About nine hundred tons, I'd guess. A hundred and fifty feet long with a forty-foot beam."
Laid and fitted out in a Thames River shipyard, the workhorse of the late-eighteenth-century British merchant fleet, the Indiaman was a crossbreed among ships. She was built mainly as a cargo carrier, but those were still the days of pirates and marauding warships from England's enemies, so she was armed with twenty-eight eighteen-pound cannon. Besides being built to transport goods and merchandise, she was also fitted out with cabins to carry passengers. Everything on the deck was standing, encased in ice, as if awaiting a phantom crew. The guns sat silently at their ports, the lifeboats were still lashed atop the spare spars, and all hatches were neatly in place.
There was an eerie and dreadful strangeness about the old ship, a curious grimness that belonged not of earth but of another world. A mindless fear gripped the crewmen who stood on the deck that some hoary, gruesome creature was waiting to receive them. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and there were none, except for Roxanna, who was in the innocent throes of almost girlish enthusiasm, who did not feel a deep sense of apprehension.
"Odd," said Bigelow. "It's as if the crew abandoned the ship before it became trapped in the ice."
"I doubt that," said Mender grimly. "The lifeboats are still stowed."
"God only knows what we'll find belowdecks."
"Then let's go see," Roxanna said excitedly.
"Not you, my dear. I think it best if you remain here."
She gave her husband a proud look and slowly shook her head. "I'll not wait alone while there are ghosts walking about."
"If there are any ghosts," said Bigelow, "they'd have frozen solid by now."
Mender gave orders to his men. "We'll divide into two search parties. Mr. Bigelow, take three men and look about the crew's quarters and the cargo hold. The rest of us will go aft and search the passenger and officers' quarters."
Bigelow nodded. "Aye, Captain."
Snow and ice had built up into a small mountain around the door leading into the stern cabins, so Mender led Roxanna and his men up and onto the poop deck, where they put their muscles to work and lifted the after hatch cover over a companionway that had frozen closed. Casting it aside, they cautiously dropped down the stair inside. Roxanna was directly behind Mender, clutching the belt around his heavy coat. The normally white complexion of her face was flushed red with a mixture of excitement and suspense.
She did not suspect that she was about to enter a frozen nightmare.
At the door to the captain's cabin, they found a huge German shepherd dog, curled upon a small rug. To Roxanna, the dog appeared to be asleep. But Mender nudged it with the toe of his boot, and the slight thud told them that the dog was frozen solid.
From Atlantis Found by Clive Cussler. (c) October, 1999
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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