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Stow Away

Escaped from doom, into unknown troubles of another kind.

By L. E. MastilockPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 13 min read
3
Photo by emre ergen on Unsplash

I was hidden in a small, square basket on the deck in a pile of barrels, cases and cartons, filled with supplies of all sorts, when the air ship had risen, equally terrified and relieved. I had escaped one form of doom, but wasn't sure what new troubles I was getting myself into. I was a scrawny, gangly boy with sandy hair and too large nose. Not much good for anything. I had been reminded of that all too often by my father before he died. And afterward as I was passed along by the authorities on my way to an orphanage. It had been pure luck I had been able to slip away and hide in that basket on the docks, bound for a different air ship than the one destined for certain misery; the prison that was the boys home.

It had been hours crouched in this prickly basket and my long limbs were cramped and aching. I felt I would scream if I didn't stretch my legs. I tried to hold back, to stay still, but my body had ideas of it's own and I suddenly burst out of the basket unwittingly, rolling across the deck as I did so. There were audible gasps of astonishment as all eyes turned toward me. A most bedraggled looking group of sailors, if I ever saw any. My legs ached and tingled painfully, but were mostly numb and useless. I couldn't move. I could only lay there, gazing around me, sucking in the cold thin air as it was way up here at the top of the sky. I was so hungry, my head felt thick, like in a dream, not really here. If not for that, I probably would have been afraid.

The captain was there, a large man, with a belly that poured over his belt, great black boots, and a thick salt and pepper beard that hid most of his weathered face. His big, dark, bushy, brows furrowed angrily. He remarked steadily and loudly, to be heard over the engines and fans keeping the air heated and the enormous balloon above us inflated, “It seems we have a stow away.”

He ordered a deck hand to carry me inside. Strong arms scooped me up and brought me into a small, bare room. Floor to ceiling it was comprised of wooden boards. No ornamentation, shelves or nooks. Nothing but a rough table and bench. I was placed on the table and left for a moment. The Captain stood in the doorway glaring at me. Soon, a scruffy, slight man dressed all in dingy white shuffled in. His cap had a crooked red cross stitched on it, so I assumed this must be a doctor, though he didn't look inviting. I didn't want him to touch me. He smiled at me and the gaping holes where his teeth should have been didn't offer any additional comfort.

The captain looked me over and asked, “What gives you the right to free passage on my ship, eh? Men have to work for their board here and we don't have extras to feed a runt like you. Why shouldn't I just toss you overboard for the birds?”

In a shaky voice I replied, “I, uh...please. I was in danger and had to get away quickly. I'm sorry.” I stuttered on, “I can work. I don't look like much, but I can clean. And I can cook!” I looked up hopefully.

“Hmm. Don't think you're in any less danger here. You're a crim'nal in my book.“ he barked. “I still have a mind to toss you, but happens we could use a cook. Ours been doing the grub give'n us slop unfit to eat.”

He mumbled to the doctor, “Check he's healthy,” before turning his back and stomping away.

The so called doctor checked my teeth, “mm good.” The old man's voice was gravely. He then combed through my hair, looking for lice I assumed. “Healthier'n most us on this wreck.” Without another word he took my arm and pulled me down to the belly of the ship to the dank, dark kitchens.

“Wellins!” he demanded. “this eers the new cook. Train 'im up. Cap'ns orders” He left me there and sprinted up the way we had come.

Wellins was another big man, with a stained, moth eaten shirt and belly that protruded far out from anything that looked comfortable. He smelled rotten and very much resembled a pig. As that thought flitted through my mind I had to stifle a laugh.

“What you smirkn at?!” Wellins' face turned red and his scowl made him look like an angry boar. I really needed to get my imagination under control before I lost it and let out a laugh, and lost my life in the process.

“Nothing sir. I'm ready to work sir.” I managed with a straight face.

“Sir, mm.” The side of his mouth jerked up strangely. Was he smiling? He must not ever get called sir and had enjoyed the sensation. “You're no cook. That my job. But I need a slopper. Guess you'll do.”

I didn't know what a slopper was, but I fairly guessed it was whatever the cook needed me to do or didn't want to do himself. Turns out that was most everything. Once I knew my way around the kitchen I heard “Hey Slop Boy, grab that pot!” or “Slopper, stoke that ther' oven! Don't let it git cold.”, much less often. As Willins got lazier I took on more and more of the work. This was fine with me. The food improved immensely along with Willins' attitude, for he drank and slept away most of his days now and only woke to yell an occasional order or insult out of habit.

I didn't see much of the crew except the few men who came down at meal times to carry the food up to serve. But I heard they were all pleased with the new cook boy who made “hearty grub.” I grew comfortable in my new career as we floated along through the clouds. I lost track of how long we'd been flying, but didn't think on it until I noticed some of the stores were getting low. I asked Willins when we would be landing, but he cuffed my ear (not too hard, I think he had grown somewhat fond of me) and told me not to ask stupid questions. I correctly assumed he had no idea.

Things continued on in this way for a while longer until an evening when black clouds rolled in surrounding the ship faster than even the Captain could have predicted. I was oblivious to any change in weather, being confined below deck, until a deafening clap of thunder rattled the ship. At the same time a blast of light blinded me, even down the stairs. Hail began pelting the deck and bouncing down the steps. The roar of the ice hitting wood drowned out the shouts of the men working above. More lightning flashed and thunder roared. The ship swung and wound, bounced and rattled, battered this way and that as if the directions of the winds themselves were warring against each other.

I heard a terrifying crack. I was crouched down in the kitchen, holding on for fear of being thrown across the room, when I saw the fissure tearing across the ceiling. “Willins!” I yelled and yanked on the mans arm. More cracks crawled across the floor. I yelled louder and yanked harder, but Willins was in a drunken stupor. He fell from his chair and lay on the floor like a boulder. There was no waking him and no possible way of moving him. I bounded up the steps planning to get someone else to help.

I hadn't been prepared for the blast of icy wind or pain of hail slamming into my skin. I yelped as I came out from under cover. But the ship was ripping apart and I had no time do anything, but leap onto the front half of the ship connected to the balloon. The back half, which included the kitchen, was dangling precariously, connected only by a few splintering beams. Men were screaming and scrambling, barking orders, pulling ropes and sails that were positioned on either side of the air ship. Some, I watched in horror, lost their grip and were flung helplessly to their deaths by the uncaring wind. I lost all hope that anyone would be able to get to Willins in time. I struggled to keep my hold onto anything bolted down and make my way to the base of the balloon. After much scraping, slipping, and sliding, I gripped a beam and wrapped a rope around myself. If the entire ship broke up, I would at least continue flying, so long as the balloon stayed in the air.

The Captain had been shouting demands the entire time, most of which were lost in the wind, but as the ship tilted precariously to the sounds of continuous booming thunder and loud ripping as more of the ship was torn apart, I saw him dive into a doorway near me. His quarters, I was pretty sure. Boards splintered and flew into the air in all directions. The back half of the ship broke off and dropped into darkness. People screamed and the rope around my arm was aching, but I dared not loosen my grip. The cold and damp stabbed into my very core.

I must have blacked out after that. I woke up dangling from a rope, swinging in mid air, staring straight at the faraway ground! Part of the beam I had been tied to swung there with me, thumping me in the side or back whenever our swings met. I blinked and then with a start and skip of a heart beat, waved my arms and legs in panic trying to get a hold of something, anything! I quickly realized it was futile and tried to calm myself from the terror I felt and force myself to think. I grabbed the piece of beam next to me, though that didn't help other than offer a miniscule comfort to be holding something solid. I looked for a way to pull myself up to what was left of the ship. There wasn't much up there. The balloon was still inflated and floating along, calmly now through clear, blue skies, with what looked more like a wooden raft beneath it.

I let go of the beam and gripped the rope above me tightly, attempting to straighten myself out. I slowly pulled myself up the rope, using all the strength I had in my tired limbs. I learned to clamp my feet together with the rope between them in a certain way, taking some of the weight off my arms. Slowly and steadily I climbed, until I was gripping the jagged edge of the flooring above me. I didn't think I had strength enough left to haul my body over the boards. I called out on the faint hope that anyone was alive and would here me. No answer came.

I called out again and thought I heard a door creak open and then footsteps. “I'm sure everything is creaky up there” I thought, not wanting to lean on false hopes.

A thick arm reached down and gripped my wrist, hauling me up without effort in a single motion. Suddenly, I was sitting on the deck staring up at the Captain. He looked as furious as ever, looking down his nose and over his beard and belly at me. But then he did something unexpected. He laughed. He sat down next to me and said, “The cook boy. Of all people it would be the stow away cook boy.” He shook his head. I have no idea why, but I laughed with him.

We both laughed and cried. He put an arm around me and we laughed until we were drained. Then we just sat there together. Just sitting, breathing, and feeling stunned that we were still alive. There were a few other men, looking worse for wear standing around the deck, or messing with ropes, tying boards together to make our small craft more secure. After a while the horror of what had happened, took over and I no longer laughed. My shoulders drooped and quiet tears flowed. I felt terrible that I hadn't been able to save anyone, most of all Willins, whom I had known best. He had been good to me in his gruff way.

“Not yer fault.” The Captains voice broke me out of my dreary thoughts. I looked up at him and wondered what we would do. It didn't seem likely we could steer the ship and we would run of our fuel and come down eventually. “We need yer help riggin' up what we can fer steerin'” He had read my mind, “Lets get ta work”.

I helped the Captain and what there was of a crew as best I could, though I didn't have any experience with rope or strength to tighten them as they could. “had to be the scrawny cook boy” I heard someone mutter more than once. Somehow we made a makeshift pulley that could move the one sail we propped up as a rudder from the bed sheets in the Captain's cabin, the one room that had survived. One skeletal looking man with almost no teeth knew how to manually control the air flow in and out of the balloon, so assured me he could get us down safely. “Enjins are still good, " he told me. "Problem now is we're blown way off course. Don't rightly know where, but look. We're over a sea now.” he was right. We had traveled out to sea and there was no land in sight in any direction.

“We have no food or supplies either.” I squeaked and was ashamed my voice came out so high and shaky.

“I do have my own stash o' some'ut in my cabin in case o' mutiny.” The Captain proclaimed. “Can't be too careful. We can live off'n that for a good 'mount of time, seein' as you don' look like you eat much.” I was relieved some, but still fighting to keep my heart rate down. I was scared.

Exhausted, with nothing else needing to be done immediately, we all sat or lay down on the deck to rest, leaving one man to watch and two others to attempt to steer a straight course with the makeshift rigging. “We'll gain our bearin's when the stars come ot.” I heard one of the men say.

Darkness wasn't long in coming, but it was a cloudy night, without a hint of a star. My heart sank. I had to trust that this shabby, battered group of sailors, who I had come to believe were actual pirates, would get us down safely, eventually. It wasn't as if I had anywhere to be, I remembered bleakly, but I desired to stay alive for quite a few more years even so. I lay on the deck and tried in vain to get some sleep. The Captain had finished giving his final orders of the day and walked by on his way to his cabin. He glanced at me as he clomped past.

“All people, it had to be the stow away cook boy.” the Captain laughed as he steeled away into his cabin, shaking his head.

Short StoryAdventure
3

About the Creator

L. E. Mastilock

L. E. Mastilock is a lover of nature, family, and good food. She believes nothing heals better than a good cry followed by a good laugh. She is a published author and artist residing with her family in the Sierra Mountains of California.

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  • R. J. Raniabout a year ago

    Brilliantly written, L. E. ! Seriously. I love how you write prose - your descriptions are so vivid and imaginative. It's like watching a movie! Thanks for writing such a fantastic story - I loved every minute 🤗

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