Summary: When a dream becomes a nightmare – a “pre-prequel”
928 words, Rating: G
Saved by the Kind Mate
The boy crouched in the darkest corner of the hold. He had his knees drawn up to his chin and his trembling hands clutched his legs. Thick beads of sweat stood on his forehead. Although he hadn’t had a bite for hours, he felt sick to his stomach and was most likely to throw up again. The boy prayed silently that the ups and downs of the ship would finally subside and the burning sensation in his chest and the stomach pain would stop. He prayed to no avail, for the “Wanderer” would fight for many more hours with creaking planks and fully inflated sails against the violent storm and the raging waves. The boy groaned in despair when the ship lurched violently again and his stomach immediately protested.
He had spent countless days at the harbor watching the big sailing ships as they came into the docks. Within a couple of days they were unloaded from their heavy cargoes, loaded again with mysterious barrels and crates, and then they set sail to new adventures. He had watched crews disembark in a hurry; rough guys from all over the world looking forward to a few hours ashore. On their return they were noisy and drunk and obviously happy. Sometimes he watched a captain or first mate, too. They were a little better dressed, a little less wild, but just as excited as the sailors about the joy that was waiting for them in the dubious establishments that lined the streets in the red-light district.
Often the boy forgot the time over the exciting action at the harbor and ran home late. Most evenings it was in vain; because his chores weren’t done properly his strict father gave him a beating with his belt instead of a meal. When he could not sleep because of the painful welts, the boy lay hungry on his simple straw mattress and dreamed of travels with one of the wonderful three- or four-masters into a better world full of adventures.
Two days ago the telegram had arrived. His older brother had had an accident and had to sell his shop because he couldn’t afford to hire a helper for the next months. Straightaway their father decided to move with his family to Reading to help out in his older son’s shop. The boy was devastated. He couldn’t imagine selling cabbage and potatoes for the rest of his life in a place so far away from the sea. He decided it was time to make his dream come true.
Somehow he managed to sneak on board and to hide in the hold unnoticed. The boy had enough food for an entire week in his bag and was bursting with joy and excitement when he realized in his hiding place between the barrels that the “Wanderer” was setting sail.
His joy was short-lived. After two days at sea, the little stowaway was discovered and dragged in front of the captain. And that man was at least as strict as the father he had fled. Under the hooting of the crew he commanded to throw the stowaway overboard after the good whipping he deserved. The captain held the nine-tailed cat already in his hand, when his first mate intervened and suggested the stowaway could work off the price of his passage. After a moment of hesitation the captain agreed.
The stowaway was brought down to the galley where the cook looked at him suspiciously. But after a while he accepted the help and the boy spent long days peeling potatoes, keeping the fire burning in the stove, cleaning plates and cups. The cook was hardly older than the boy and spoke only a few English words. But the conversation between them with hands and feet and occasionally a swung cleaver worked better than expected.
When the sea was calm and allowed it, the first mate was not needed on deck. Sometimes the man climbed down to the galley for a chat. Smoking his pipe and talking, he entertained the boy with his adventures at sea. The little runaway listened with his mouth open while the ship’s cook chopped meat and vegetables for their next meal, smiling but without understanding a word.
So the long journey of the runaway had finally become quite bearable until the morning of the storm, his first forceful storm at sea. It turned the ship quickly into a nightmare. The cook gave him some rum to calm him down, but it did not help. On the contrary, as soon as the boy had choked it down, he had to cling to the railing to get rid of it again. He felt so miserably he eventually hid in the hold to die alone…
Suddenly the hatch flew open and a sailor with a lantern descended into the hold. The man squeezed himself through the barrels and crates and shone the milky glow of the lantern into the boy’s face.
“Here you are,” growled the sailor and turned around. Through the open hatch he shouted against the howling wind: “Mr. Stoddard, he isn’t gone overboard. He is here with a green face like moldy bread, but in one piece!”
The sailor climbed back up and seconds later the first mate appeared.
“Cartwright, Cartwright, you can give a man a heartburn for sure. How I’ll make you a decent sailor I don’t know,” smiled the man, shaking his head. He was obviously relieved. “Now get your butt up here. Hop Sing is waiting down in the galley for your help.”
Written for the Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament
My “cards”: Cleaver, Telegram. Sailor, Heartburn, (Joker)
Other Stories by this Author