A Time for Courage
A boy risks everything to keep a promise.
Beneath the forest of towering masts, busy stevedores' calls echoed along the wharf as the bells of Saint Brigid's rang the six o'clock hour. Pipe smoke swirled around a pair of captains who stood between the entrances of two pubs, where they monitored their ships and glared away any sailors who considered ducking in for a last draught before their voyage. Seagulls bickered over fish guts a kitchen girl threw into the street in front of the Peculiar Puffin. The more weathered captain pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and pretended to look at it, gesturing toward a nearby shadow.
"I've noticed that youth about the docks for tha past sev'ral days, Zachary." He cleared his throat quietly and continued speaking in low, salt-sharpened tones. "He usually has a younger boy with 'im. But tonight he's alone, and he seems to have tooken a special interest in tha cargo bein' loaded onto your Leapin' Marlin."
Zachary cast a glance at the bedraggled, barefoot stray. Watching intently as dockworkers hoisted a protectively crated grandfather clock onto the deck of his ship, the lad reminded the captain of his thirteen-year-old self. One of the ship's mates shouted for men to lash the valuable timepiece in the hold, reminding them everything must be secured before they sailed on the midnight tide.
"A younger boy, you say?" Zachary raised his eyebrows. "Are you sayin' I may wind up with two stowaways rather than one, Archibald?"
"I'm just suggestin' you'll likely want ta check tha contents of yon great clock before you deliver it to your rich customer," Archibald said.
Tommy took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and navigated his way across the broad cobblestone street, high-stepping over piles of horse manure. He inserted himself as though he belonged in the line of longshoremen who grabbed kegs, baskets, and sacks of cabbages from the quartermaster's pile of supplies for the Leaping Marlin. He struggled to lift a crate to his shoulder.
The quartermaster barked, "Tha's too heavy for ya, boy. Take this tea service to tha captain's stateroom—and see that nothin' gets cracked, or you'll be flayed." The man tapped his cane on a polished mahogany box with bright brass latches.
Tommy hugged the case to his chest, the wood smooth against his bare arms, and joined the procession up the gangplank.
A midshipman stopped him with a shout as he turned toward the fore of the ship. "What is that? And where're you going with it?"
"A tea service, sir." Tommy looked toward the quartermaster, who still doled out loads on the wharf. "I'm to put it in the captain's stateroom."
"Well, do it, then. Don't wander about the deck. It's that way, not that way! Look lively!"
With his face pressed against a freshly laundered shirt, Tommy waited in darkness, caressing the cool skin of the apple he had lifted from the basket on the captain's table. He struggled to think of something other than the cramps in his legs that had developed since he'd folded himself into the captain's cabinet—or the growing pressure in his bladder. Billy, however, had been tucked into the body of the grandfather clock for much longer, with only a small canteen and a couple potatoes. Temporary discomfort was a small price to pay for passage. Few sounds penetrated this hiding place, and the stowaway drifted off to sleep to the rhythm of distant footsteps topside.
He woke to voices in the stateroom.
"We found 'im, Captain. Just where you said 'e'd be."
"Do you know what we do with stowaways, boy? We throw 'em overboard."
"I told you you'd be fish food, boy," the first voice snarled.
Tommy lurched at the sound of his brother's plea.
"Please, sir, don't—"
Tommy threw open the cabinet door and wrestled free, landing in a heap on the floor. "Don't throw my brother overboard, sir! I was told a captain always needs a good cabin boy."
"Well, look at tha'," the captain said. "Two stowaways. But I don't need two cabin boys."
Tommy scrambled to his feet and set his jaw. "Then throw me overboard. Billy's small, but he can work—he's a good worker!"
"No, no, no! You can't throw Tommy overboard!" Billy launched himself out of his captor's grasp, pummeling the captain's midsection with his tiny fists.
"So, it's mutiny, is it?" said the first mate, restraining Billy and pulling him away from the captain. "To tha brig, then, and you'll both be hanged in tha marnin'!"
Tommy took a deep breath. "Please, sir. Hang me if you must, but before my pa died I made a promise, that I'd get Billy to the New World, where there's plenty of food for everyone."
The captain regarded the two boys. "How old are you?"
"I'm twelve, and Billy's nine."
The captain waggled his finger at Billy. "You're too young to mutiny, boy. If you want to assault me and get yourself hanged, you must wait until you're fourteen. It's the law," he admonished. "Do you understand?"
Billy nodded, wide-eyed. Behind him, the first mate coughed and raised his hand to conceal a smirk. The captain turned his attention to Tommy.
"And it's passage to the col'nies you're wantin'? Well, you'll hav'ta work for it. I can make you cook's mates—but you've got to prove yourselves useful."
"And what will ya do on gettin' to tha New World?"
Tommy balked before stammering, "I—I, uh, we'll—"
"I've a cousin who's a silversmith in Boston. He may have place for a pair of apprentices—if I can report that you're hard workers."
Tommy nodded vigorously. "We are, sir."
"You're shipboard now, Tommy. Say Aye, Captain, and report to the ship's cook."
"Aye, Captain," replied both boys. They followed the Mate to the deck, where Tommy looked up at stars twinkling beyond the billowing sails.
"We're on our way, Pa," Tommy murmured.