The Chronicles of California Continue
Copyright © 2010 Willard Thompson
All rights reserved.
Boston, August 1831
Will Thornton hauled his kit bag down from the carriage when it stopped at the end of Summer Street. Fighting his sense of dread, he waved the driver away. Alone, he stood immobilized for a moment, his heart pounding. The air, still damp from early morning mist, formed droplets in his hair. Sour smells from the bars and bawdy houses lining the other side of the street that mingled with the stench of animal wastes, caught in his throat. Behind him, dray horses impatiently stomped their hooves on the cobblestones, sounding in Will's ears like hammers on anvils, sounding like his father's strident words still hammering at him. "As long as you live in my house you'll do as I tell you to do."
Will scanned the square-rigged vessels tied to the cluster of wharfs running along Belchers Lane between Fort Hill and Windmill Point, his eyes searching for Reliant, the vessel that would take him half way around the world. The thought filled him with apprehension and made him shudder. Unsure which ship was his, he stopped a rumpled young sailor who threaded his way between the horses and drays as he came across the street.
"Reliant?" the sailor repeated. "She be the furthest one along, mate, tied to Derby Wharf, she is. My ship and a fine lady, too, if'n ya hafta go to sea. 'Tis my misfortune I sail on the tide today."
"I sail on Reliant too," Will told him, looking into his lightly scarred face and judged him in his late teen years. He had a trim, wiry body, strong but not muscular-looking.
"The pretty wench at the sign of The Bell In Hand Tavern took my coin for an ale or two with a smile on her face, but she won't pine away for me while I'm gone, now will she?" the sailor said with a laugh. He studied Will for several moments. "Yer first trip 'round the Horn is it?" he asked. Then, after pausing to look Will over again, he added, "No offense, mate, but to my eye ya don't have the look of a sailor."
Will nodded. "I'm not. Never been to sea before. To tell you true, I don't want to go now."
"So what ill luck 'tis it puts ya before the mast?"
"I have no choice."
"How's that, mate? Ya've the look of a prosperous young man."
"I signed on for California to learn the hide trade with my uncle. Did it without telling my father so he couldn't stop me. I'll help with the trade goods when we get to California."
"Supercargo, is it? A trader? Aye won't the old man fret about a supercargo aboard. I wager you'll not touch a line nor mount a spar the whole way to California. You'll luff yer sails with nothin' to do for the next six months 'till we reach port and set up the ship's store. 'Ole Hickory probably be stumpin' for four more years in the White House before your feet touch firm ground again." The sailor gave another laugh. "Come along then," he said with a shrug. "That be our brig dead ahead. I'm Toby—Tobias Austen—and there ain't no man in his right mind wantin' to go to sea if'n there's another way to feed himself. Shed that frock coat, mate, ya won't be needin' it in the tropics, I'm guessin'."
Will hefted his bag onto his shoulder and followed Toby Austen.
They made their way around longshoremen manhandling cargo to and from other ships tied along the wharf.
"You have no trade, no skill," his father had taunted him. "How could you support yourself, much less a wife and child if it weren't for me?"
"I won't abandon her."
"If you don't I'll throw you out. And don't you doubt I will!"
"Ain't she a beauty?" Toby interrupted Will's thought. "A finer brig than the one I sailed before."
"A beauty," Will said with little conviction. Reliant seemed all a maze of lines and spars to him. Her black hull had an ominous look to it, with just a single white band from bow to stern, and her two masts and yardarms, standing bare with all sails furled, seemed insufficient to take him all the way around South America to California. "She seems a mighty small vessel on which to take such a long voyage," he added.
"That's our squaw." Toby pointed at the figurehead just below the bowsprit. "She'll take us 'round the Horn and do us proud in the gale winds blowin' there. She'll keep all them goods bein' loaded dry for you to sell to the Papists in California."
"How many other ships have you sailed?" Will asked, looking again at Toby's youthful face, still judging the lad no more than seventeen.
Toby grinned. "'Tis only my second comin' up, mate. I signed papers three years back. Lied to the mate, I did, but he needed a deck hand and looked the other way. Reliant seems a good enough ship. I hear tell her old man's a fair master, easy on the whip if'n you do yer job."
Will started to answer, but he was interrupted by the sound of a woman's voice.
"Will! Will Thornton, wait!"
It was a familiar voice calling from the head of the wharf. His heart raced. Panic crept into his gut. He stopped short, afraid to face the girl calling him. He wished there was somewhere to hide, but knowing he couldn't he turned slowly and saw Brigid Runyon running toward him. Her red hair cascaded out from her dark bonnet. Her green skirt swirled around her ankles as she ran. "Don't be a-leavin' me, Will!" She called out again,
"I'll marry her, Father," Will had shouted at Caleb Thornton several days before. "She's with child. What else can I do?"
"How dare you raise your voice to me in my house!" his father had responded coldly.
As she ran toward him holding up her long skirts, the toe of Brigid's slipper caught between two wooden planks, tumbling her headfirst onto the wharf. She lay there, skirt and petticoats in disarray around her thighs with her linen undergarment showing. Her bonnet had slipped down over one eye and her hair spilled onto the wharf like molten copper from a crucible.
Will rushed to her, wrapping his arms around her waist and gently lifting her back on her feet. "Are you hurt?" he asked.
"Marry her? Impossible!" The anger in Caleb Thornton's voice was low and tightly controlled. "I will not let you marry that Irish girl. I forbid it!"
Brigid clung to Will in a desperate embrace for a moment, fighting to catch her breath. Her sobbing choked her so that she coughed and gasped when she tried to speak.
Holding her tight in his arms, Will motioned Toby to wait by the ship for him. In his head, his father's voice, never shouting, but hard as granite, continued to scold. "How could you do that to me after all I've given you?"
"Given me, Father? You've given me nothing but criticism and neglect. Always too busy," Will had accused him.
Turning back to Brigid, he took a handkerchief from a pocket and handed it to her to dab at her tears.
"Ya be leavin' me, Will?" Brigid whispered in a hoarse voice between coughs. "How could ya be so cruel, and me with child? What am I to do without ya when yer gone?"
Relaxing his embrace and taking a step back, Will answered her, fighting to keep a tight rein on his feelings. "I'm going to California," he said with a solemn face, "to earn my living. I'll come back in a year or two when I've saved enough for us to marry."
"Not even a fare-thee-well from ya, is it? Don't be leavin' me, Will," she pleaded again. "I love ya so much."
"It's best for us. I'll think of you each day I'm gone."
"Each day, ya say. And how many days will that be, Will? More than I can count for sure. Nat Turner be marchin' through the streets of Roxbury afore you get back, I'm thinkin'. And the babe will be toddlin' around without a da."
"Don't you see that a marriage with a girl of a lower social standing would never work out, Will?" Caleb Thornton had chided. "Her values are different. The fact she let herself get pregnant shows that. You would be throwing your life away with her. With Amanda Percy at least you'd be among your own kind."
"We're young, Brigid. We'll still have a whole life together. When I get back ..."
"Young, yer sayin'," she interrupted. "I'm not too young to swell up with the babe ya gave me, am I? Maybe yer sayin' at twenty yer too young to settle down, is that what yer sayin'?"
"I need to make my own way. If my father disowns me I couldn't support you."
"I went to yer house on Beacon Street looking for ya this mornin'. Yer mother told me ya were sailin' today."
"I've no choice. I'm bound for California to work with my uncle. When I return ..."
Brigid was getting herself under control, smoothing her bodice and skirt, rearranging her hair and squaring her bonnet properly on her head. Her coughing had stopped and she put her hands hard on her hips, giving Will a sharp look. "Yer da saw me talkin' to yer mother. He said they've picked out another girl for ya, that's what he said."
"I won't spend my life with that twit of a Percy girl," Will had told his father. "Not a thought in her head. You picked Amanda Percy, not me. She's a ninny."
"He sat me down like a child and told me it was all arranged, he'll take care o' me and the babe, he said. All arranged, is it, Will? And me not even knowin'?"
"I don't want to leave you, Brigid, but my father's given me no choice. Can't you see?"
"I'm warning you, son, if you don't stop seeing that girl I'll throw you out of my house, disown you. You can go sleep on the Commons for all I'll care."
"Yer father is it? Can ya not stand up to him? Do you not have a single thought of yer own under God's heaven, Will? Did you not have your own thoughts when ya kissed me in the dark o' the night and whispered sweet words in my ear? Did yer da tell ya to take advantage of a poor seamstress or was that yer own idea?"
"I'm sorry," Will tried a second time, "I've got to get to my ship now. When I get back ..."
"When ya get back, yer sayin'? That's a fine mess for me to deal with fer sure," she said with a tone of despair coming into her voice. "I won't be pinin' away waitin' for ya, Will Thornton. I'll be carin' for the babe ya gave me. Who'll want a used shop girl then? Yer da's a hard man, Will."
"I've signed on one of the company ships for California."
"You what?! You defied me?"
"I've made my choice. I won't live in your house any longer." Then Will Thornton had searched for words with which to wound Caleb Thornton. "I don't want to live like you. Uncle Amos will teach me."
Will cringed at the memory of that confrontation. When it was over he was shaken. Words were the only weapon he had against his father but it was the first time he'd dared speak out. He turned away from Brigid for a moment and stared out at the open water beyond the wharf, wondering how he'd come to this point, wondering what it would do to the rest of his life?
Longshoremen were queuing up alongside Reliant, waiting to roll barrels of cargo over a plank bridge onto her deck. A line running through a block on the main yardarm hoisted a pair of wooden-spoked, iron-rimmed wheels off the wharf as two donkeys tied to the other end of the line moved slowly down the wharf goaded by a man with a wooden stave. Will saw a bare-chested brute of a man in leather breeches, bent over under a heavy load, kick a scrawny, barking dog out of his way, lifting the dog into the air with the toe of his boot. The dog let out an anguished whimper before falling back on the wharf.
"My family'll take care of you and the child—my mother insisted on that." Will stopped to look at Brigid's familiar face. It wasn't a pretty face now—it had dirt smears on it and a bruise on her cheek from her fall. Her eyes were red and puffy from her crying. But more than that, she had a frightened look.
"Yer mother, yer sayin'? She's lettin' go of you? Lettin' ya leave me? Has she no heart?"
"She did all she could. She got my father to give you a position in the house until you're back on your feet. I'll be home by then." Will saw the questioning look still on Brigid's face. "My mother has never stood up to him any more than I could," he said. "I must go now."
He began to walk, hating himself for turning away. He strode quickly toward Reliant, feeling sick deep in his stomach. As he passed the dog, still lying flat on the wharf where it had landed, Will thought he knew how the animal felt. He thought he might know how the man who'd kicked it felt, too. Turning back once more, he saw Brigid, hands still on her hips, tears streaking her face.
Atlantic Ocean, October 1831
Six weeks into the voyage, as Will readied himself for another monotonous day, all six members of the off-duty starboard watch, led by Toby and the first mate, approached Him in Reliant's cramped foc'sle.
"Mister Thornton," the mate began, putting a rough hand on Will's shoulder and glaring into his face, "you've been summoned to appear before King Neptune's Court."
Will's face showed his confusion, but he had no time to protest.
"Grab a-hold of 'em, laddies," the mate called out. "Hold 'em good, like a slippery flounder, and haul the lubber on deck."
His captors all but carried him up the companionway to the deck and held his arms outstretched while the first mate strapped a canvas harness around his waist. A quick glance over his shoulder told Will the harness was attached to a line running through a block hanging under the main topsail yardarm and back down into the hands of the bos'un. He began to tremble and tried to hide it from the other men. He feared he might soil his britches.
The first mate could barely contain a hearty laugh as he confronted Will. "Do you have anythin' to say for yerself, before we feed you to the sharks swimmin' alongside?"
"Toby," Will pleaded to his friend.
"Not me, Will," Toby said. "If'n the first mate says this is your fate then your fate it be. No man can save you from meetin' King Neptune when he sails the Southern Seas. I've met 'im meself." At that Toby couldn't restrain his own laughter and turned his head away.
"So be it then," the first mate intoned. "'Tis the judgment of this crew that you be sentenced to a sound dunkin' in the ocean and a personal greeting from King Neptune." He turned to the man holding the line, "Bos'un, carry out your orders."
The bos'un began hauling on the line. Other sailors grabbed on, laughing and taunting Will as they hauled away. Will ascended off the deck, slowly, like one of Giotto's angels. Suspended in the harness, he was helpless. Toby and the rest of the watch laughed and cheered as they hoisted him still higher. Sailors on the port watch joined the merriment from their work stations around the foredeck.
From his vantage point, the boundless ocean stretched ahead. The bowsprit pointing south seemed like an ominous warning of the wind and waves waiting for them around Cape Horn. The only sounds he heard were the murmurings of the wind in the rigging and the creaking of the block as the line hoisted him up to the yardarm. Then the eh-eh-eh cry of a lone bird following in the ship's wake came to him.
The sight of the bird startled Will, momentarily making him forget his dread of what was ahead. Where had it come from, he wondered? Did it know its way home? Or was it as lost as he was, a solitary traveler in the middle of the ocean?
The bird came closer, circling the brig and then settling on the topsail yardarm, just above him, its white underbelly and black wingtip feathers stark against the brilliance of the sky.
Will stared up at the bird and the bird seemed to stare back. On deck, the crew stopped hauling to watch. "An albatross," one of them called out to his shipmates, pointing up at the bird. "'Tis a fair omen. Good sailin' ahead!"
A good omen for him? Will questioned. Lost in the middle of an ocean, not sure what lay ahead, not knowing if he'd ever get home? There was no time for self-pity because the starboard watch now began hauling on a second line that moved the block along the yardarm until he was suspended over the waves. With a whoop and a holler of excitement, the crew started lowering away.
Excerpted from Delfina's Gold by Willard Thompson Copyright © 2010 by Willard Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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