Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Fifty Five

This chapter was written directly to the website on 29 September 2006.

Sebastian was tired.

He stared at the water as it sluggishly pushed past the side of the boat. The wind riffed the sails and stubbornly refused to pull its own weight. The men had reluctantly pulled out the oars and set about pulling in teams. One team for three hours, the next for three hours... and Sebastian was at their beck and call.

"Here boy! Bring water!"

Here boy! Here boy!

It rang in his ears even as he slept, fitfully, between the coils of anchor rope below the poop deck.

He had been on board for weeks now and only the animals were lower than he. A couple of horses they had been hired to ferry across the sea, and a dog that feasted on the rats in the hold. The horses were growing thin, no space to run, no fresh grass. Their heads hung down and they shifted listlessly in their stalls. They were a sorry contrast to the strong farm horses he remembered.

The sad sound of the goats and chickens calling to the land had faded now, and the only food they had was the salted meat and dry bread, and occasional fish when the net dragging behind ran through a school. The water was running low...

The hold had been swept clean, and boxes swiftly knocked together to hold salted fish the only product the sailors could create on the journey. They should have been near land, to hear the experienced sailors talk. But the lookouts could find nothing. Not even a hint of an onshore or offshore current.

Sebastian sighed and rolled over, gazing up at the fluffy little clouds that signified nothing. No rain, no wind, nothing.

Back home, a day like this would have been heaven. He'd be off as soon as chores were done, dipping his feet in the river and tossing his line in the deeper pools below the rapids...

Home.

He tried to think of Inga's face. All he could remember was the way her jaw twitched when he was annoying her.

He thought about Daniel always trying to teach him something, show him a better way.

He sighed again, thinking of his mother's lovely vegetables, shelling fresh peas and beans, cutting fruit for pies.

He knew what his father would say. He could see his dark eyes glowering, and the set of his mouth as he lectured him on being part of a family, having responsibilities, being a man.

He closed his eyes, feeling the roll and lift as the ship moved over the gelatinous water. Rocking...

He was home. He woke in his bed and rolled over, pulling the pillow over his head. His sister pulled the covers off and grabbed his feet.

He roared, but it was laughter. Inga ran out of the room, giggling as he tried to pull the blankets back up.

Today was his birthday. As soon as his chores were done, the rest of the day would be his to enjoy. There would be presents at the breakfast table, and his favorite pancakes (the thin ones with jam and thick cream). They would solemnly measure him at the door to the pantry. And at the festival at mid-winter, he and the other children who had turned 13 who had would be officially accepted as members of the village...

A shadow across his face woke him. A large bird was circling over the ship. It had a wingspan as wide as he was tall. It looked at him, and flew off.

The men were pulling harder, the captain was calling.

"Boy!"

He jumped up and ran back, ducking the whip that lashed toward him from the bosun's perch partway up the main mast.

A sharp change was sweeping over the water toward them.

The clouds behind had gathered in and were towering over each other, turning dark and pushing up until they hit the top of the sky, bending over and reaching toward the boat which seemed smaller by the oarstroke.

The captain sent him up the mast to relieve the lookout.

Sebastian could see the bird that had awakened him, far ahead now.

He looked back and was astonished how quickly the wall of clouds was approaching. Flashes of light advanced from the horizon and now and then small cracks of noise were beginning to make their way to his ears.

Ahead, the sky was bright and the clouds were still light, but they were becoming more and more dense. A crescent moon glowed quietly near the forward horizon, just beginning to come up, it looked as if it was floating on the edge of the sea.

But as far as Sebastian could tell, they were alone. Not even the birds and porpoises that often followed their wake. The water was turning a peculiar taupe-green color, and the shape of the waves was changing, becoming more angular, jutting strongly at angles, criss-crossing in their eagerness to escape the storm.

A wind came up from behind, and the men stowed their oars as the sails began to fill.

"Boy" hollered the bosun, "Get down here!" and the lookout climbed back up, an oiled jacket and cap tucked through the back of his belt.

Pancho was in the hold, rolling barrels out and putting them in the lifting net. Sebastian helped him load them, and tossed up some line so the other men could lash them to the railings. It was a good chance to get some fresh water.

By the time the last empty barrel was lifted out, the rain was coming through the open hatch and washing the dust off. The sailors had turned their attention to furling the sails and closing all the portholes.

The boat began to pitch and roll, and Sebastian staggered over to check on the horses. He carefully checked their halters and adjusted the stalls, putting some blankets on the sides of the rails to help pad them. Putting the water buckets aside, he stroked them gently and talked to them about the fresh grass and soft dirt of their new home.

The boat creaked and groaned, shuddering as each wave dashed and broke on the hull.

Suddenly Pancho was standing there, looking at him strangely. His hair was plastered against his head and his clothes were soaked through.

The bow dipped and lifted, and Pancho and Sebastian fell to their hands and knees. The deck of the hold was already wet with water sloshing back and forth.

Pancho's eyes were wild, his voice high with panic, "Look, kid you know how to swim, right?"

Sebastian nodded, his mouth as dry as his hands were wet.

"Listen carefully then. If the boat starts to swamp, the captain will give the order to abandon ship that means get off quickly. But even the best swimmer won't be able to stay afloat long enough to reach land. So you keep this piece of line with you, and you lash yourself to the first big piece of stuff that floats: mast, spar, barrel... whatever.

"They're about to close the hatch to keep us afloat if we can. Come up on deck and help me. Just stay by my side and do whatever I do."

Sebastian turned white. "What about the horses," he whispered.

"Forget them, kid. If the order comes, stay up on deck. Boats like this go down fast. And you know how hard it is to control a panicked horse. You can't let them loose while it's pitching anyway, and there's no way to lift them on deck if you could."

On deck the men rushed back and forth, lashing this down, tying that up. The rain came sideways first from port, then from starboard. The sailors had lashed the spars so they would shift, and the lookout was down from the crow's nest again, struggling to remain standing on the slippery deck. The clouds had surrounded the boat and merged with the dark waters.

Sebastian was disoriented. He kept his eyes focused on the back of Pancho's jacket and helped him haul lines. The captain and the first mate struggled with the tiller, and Pancho and Sebastian struggled to reach them.

With a terrifying CRACK! The forward mast crashed down, pinning several men underneath. The raw stump jutted into the gray sky and pointed toward nothing in particular. The men who were trapped struggled and cried, and the captain ordered as many men to their aid as he could spare. That is to say, he ordered Pancho and Sebastian and the lookout forward. The stronger men were needed to keep the rest of the ship together...

One of the men had passed out by the time they were able to get there. And another was simply dead a large pin had driven through his heart. But two others were alive and unharmed. Pancho and Sebastian braced and lifted, and the lookout slipped them out from under the huge log. The unconscious man they slid out and lashed to the base of the mast.

The vessel lurched and rolled harder. Another huge CRACK! startled them and they turned to look back.

The middle of the boat had opened up, and the sea was rapidly filling the hold. The shrieks of the frightened horses were soon silenced...

The captain didn't need to give an order. The remaining men turned to grabbing anything that might float. Pancho and Sebastian pulled the cover off the forward hatch and tossed it overboard, then leaped after it. They reached it at the same time, and hung on, kicking to get clear of the wreck.

The lookout gave a wry grin, waved at them and turned his back. "He can't swim!" yelled Pancho, "He's giving up!"

Sebastian turned his face away. The stern of the boat was fully under water now, the bow lifted high. The waves were high enough that sometimes the boat was completely hidden from view. It seemed forever, and then the rain let up. And the water relaxed. And the clouds moved back into the sky where they belonged.

All around them bits of wreckage, some with men holding tight, bobbed in the silvery water. Pancho grinned at Sebastian, "Looks like we're on a private cruise now!"

Sebastian tried to grin back, but his bravery was back on shore.