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Authors: J. Clayton Rogers

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BOOK: At the Midway
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"You're stingy with that tick."

"I'm the one needs to read it, no one else."

"Let me sign.  I can write."

In front of the owners, the purser could not refuse his demand.  William flourished the pen across the ledger. 
Now
let the purser try to short his pay! 
Now
let him try to say Pegg had signed on later, not sooner!

A poor start.  And things got no better when Pegg spotted the purser slinking out of the forecastle with a seabag over his arm.  When William checked his sea chest he found it drastically depleted--and every depletion a book.

The diversity of books on ships was proverbial, running from Shakespeare and Kant to
Peg-Leg Pete
,
the
Terror
of
Java
and
The
Brain
Eaters
of
Samoa
.  A great deal of technical material was ingested on whaling cruises.  Monotony was another word for learning and the
Epitome
was a well-thumbed favorite.  Many sailors memorized large chunks out of its logarithmic tables.

There was no earthly reason for the purser to steal Pegg's volumes of Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bulwer-Lytton.  William had loaned out his small library as freely as he had borrowed from others.  But there it was.  Theft, no matter how mindless, was still theft.

When he complained to the captain about it, Chandry slapped him with a curse and an open hand.  This was something he could get away with more easily than on a passenger ship, especially when his victim was a sixteen-year old deckhand.  In effect, he was telling William: "Mind your superiors, mind your elders, and above all mind their faults."

William's closest friend on board the
Lydia
Bailey
was Lead Foot.  He had earned his moniker during the sunset days of sail in the 1870's.  No one knew his age.  He insisted he'd served as a powder monkey on the Confederate raider
Alabama
, which would have put him in his seventies.  This seemed the only lie Lead Foot ever stuck to.  Everyone was entitled to at least one permanent untruth in their life, and since Lead Foot's was so obvious and frivolous, few ever razzed him about it.  Most assumed he was a hale fifty and left it at that.

Certain he would sympathize with his plight and forward his cause to Chandry, Pegg ran to Lead Foot after receiving his harsh slap.  He found him propped on the poop deck, reading.  He did not close
The
Mayor
of
Casterbridge
, but raised his head, watched, and listened until the youth had finished his flood of woe.  Then he shook his head sadly.

"You want justice?"

"Yes!"

"Justice for you, one William Pegg, up and facing the whole world?"

"What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing," Lead Foot said doubtfully.  "You want to nail the thieving bastard to the mainmast?"

"He stole all my books!"

"Yes.  But think about this, mate: there's millions of people on this world.  A billion, pretty soon.  All of them crowding and pushing and damn lucky if they can raise their heads three counts to be noticed.  What a howl!  All those folks want their fair share, their even break, the recognition that's due.  They all want justice.  One way or another, I guess they all deserve it."

He rolled his finger over the edge of the novel, as though nudging dust out of a crack.

"Way south, there's a place called Easter Island.  Ever hear of it?"

William was too angry to respond.

"I was with a tramp that dropped off supplies there a few years back.  I met this crazy Englishwoman.  She took me out to see the heads."

This piqued William's interest.  He'd heard about the giant stone heads of Easter Island.  While maintaining his angry silence, he leaned harder on Lead Foot's words.

"She was always walking, always scribbling in her notebooks.  I hiked with her across the island and she showed me the heads up close.  Then she showed me a stone slab and told me it was a sacrificial altar."

"Human sacrifice?"

"She told me there used to be forests on the island.  The natives made canoes and houses out of the wood.  But the population kept growing, and they needed more houses and canoes, and one day they cut down the last tree.  Didn't have any choice, you see.  They had to fish for food and they had to have roofs over their heads.  But once the trees were all gone, the canoes went to rot and the houses fell in.  It was then that they turned on each other."

"Human sacrifice."

"I didn't know how much to believe.  She was a batty old gal with hair out her nose.  But when I looked at those giant faces, I couldn't help but believe.  They knew they were destroying themselves.  They put the heads up to keep an eye on the ocean when they were gone.  What they're watching for, no one knows.  The old woman said they're looking for God.  Maybe they're looking for... hell,
us
.  But the bottom line is this, mate.  Those people who made those heads...
they
all
got
justice
.  You see, justice isn't what you read or who gets voted or who gets hanged.  It's what falls out when everything else is gone.  When we all get our breaks, our fair share, the world won't be able to hold it all.  We'll eat ourselves up.  When there's no one left to look around, that'll be justice."

None of which meant beans to William, who only wanted his books back.  He wanted to knock Lead Foot over the head for giving him an old-man speech instead of backing him.  In his young mind, there was only one avenue left open to him:

Revenge.

 

Captain Chandry continued to lower the boats.  Several months' toil were rewarded with only one hundred and thirty barrels of oil, mostly walrus--hardly the kind of bonanza he'd hoped for.  The men wondered why he didn't put into harbor for repairs.  If he thought things were too hot for him in the States and Alaska, he could always make for Siberia.  The Russians would be only too happy to relieve him of his ill-gotten booty in exchange for some genuine repairs.

What they didn't know was that Chandry had no idea where the bottomary money had gone to.  He remembered taking out the loan.  He remembered hoisting some drinks as a means of celebrating.  He remembered seeing a constable and shrinking into an alley.  And that sweet thing who cooed him up to her nest.  Couldn't trust any of these tarts, Chandry remembered thinking and he'd hid the money well.

Beyond that, everything was a blank.  He didn't know if he'd been robbed or had simply lost the bankroll.  Certainly, he hadn't bought more than the drinks and a few hours of female companionship.  Funny thing, he couldn't even remember what he'd wanted the money for in the first place.  The crew groused at what they perceived as pure greed.  But without the money or credit, no shipwright in the world would help him.

And then came the day God offered him a gift.

They came upon a school of black right whales.  The captain kicked up his feet in glee and fell in a drunken heap.  "Right whales, lads!  At least thirty strong!  Pipe all hands on deck!  Let me tell you why they call them
right
."

Chandry ordered extra waifs, small red flags on seven-foot poles, be stowed on the whaleboats and all five of the boatsteerers grinned when he told them what he had in mind.  If it worked, their worries would be over and the bottomary bond could be forgotten or at least forgiven.

The men at the sweeps worked harder than ever before.  On this occasion, William Pegg was a rower with his back to the whales, as infected as the others with the feverish prospect of success.  Bracing his feet against the wood chock, he put every ounce of his strength into his back.  His hands burned and he was sure his spine would snap, but Lead Foot was behind him, no more winded than a horse lying down.  William was fearful of the man's cluck of disapproval if he seemed lax or weak and he was determined not to let up.

The captain's plan was unveiled--an old whaling trick.  Picking out a smallish right near the end of the school, the first boatsteerer lanced the creature with a barbed harpoon just hard enough to hook its flank.  There was no grenade attached.  They did not plan on killing it.  Not quickly.

The five whaleboats were lashed stem to stern and, as the wounded whale raced ahead frantically to seek succor from the adults, the slaughter began.  The boatsteersmen lanced left and right, butchering males, females and calves.  The young wounded whale was the perfect engine.

With all oars drawn in, William was free to watch.  He soon saw why the captain ordered the extra waifs.  A red flag was planted on each whale killed or mortally wounded, as they could not use grenades for a merciful
coup
de
grace
for fear of alerting the others to their presence.  It was strange seeing the dying whales swim with waifs fluttering overhead, as if they were stricken ships signaling for help.  As far as the whalers were concerned each was a victory pennant.

"They're going to be trapped!" Lead Foot whispered hoarsely.

William turned.  A bank of clouds ahead was curdled in the peculiar fashion that indicated the beginning of an ice shelf below.  They passed ice cakes frosted red.  Things were going their way.  But the boy had a sudden sick feeling.  Facing aft, he surveyed the water beyond the boats tagging along behind them and he spotted ice he'd not noticed before.

The whaleboats surged ahead.  They had run out of waifs.  Then there was laughter from the lead boat.

"We got them all!"

Pegg twisted around once more.  The boatsteerer and officer of the lead boat were killing the baby judas whale that had led them through the pack.  It seemed a shame to William, after what they had put it through.  Then again, maybe it was for the best.

"We got them all!"

Word ran back through the other whaleboats like news of the Second Coming.  A cheer was raised for Jake-Leg Chandry.  Briefly, it seemed all his boozing had provided him a brilliant inspiration, for not one of the whales had sunk.  That was the magic of rights.  They had so much blubber in them that they were buoyed up like floating treasure houses.  They could be rendered at leisure, with no fear that they would slip underwater and escape their oil barrel coffers.

There was a general shout and the men acted silly.  Then the officers in the whaleboats reminded them there were still wounded whales about.  They pulled their bombs out of the leather beckets each boat carried and prepared to finish them off.

There was a crack.  Then another.  And a third.  At first, they thought it was ice, but Lead Foot put them right:

"It's the call-back!"

They were incredulous.  Captain Chandry was giving the emergency recall signal.  At the sound of three gunshots, they were supposed to row back to the ship with all haste.  Dumbfounded, the officers did not respond.  Then Lead Foot, the slow, hardy veteran, raised a hoarse cry:

"The ice is closing!"

So it had not been William's imagination.  The ice was moving in the rotary motion so deadly to northern mariners--the motion that chewed ships up and stranded sailors in white eternity.

There was no time to lose.  The lines connecting the whaleboats were cast off and they put about and raced for the ship.  To William, every motion seemed to take an hour.  A numbness came over him even as he rowed his heart out.  The hulls of the whaleboats were frazzled by months of bumping with ice cakes and the outer planks had taken on the consistency of absorbent horse hair.  They were already mucked with whale blood and were now gorier and heavier as they retraced their path through the killing lane.  William caught the eyes of dead and dying whales.  He was sure they were accusatory.  "You killed us. 
Why
?"

Tow lines were attached to all five whaleboats and they quickly rotated the slow-turning
Lydia
Bailey
one hundred and eighty degrees.  This done, the boat falls were attached and the whaleboats raised in less time than it had taken to lower them.

The captain made full speed out of the sudden harbor, which soon closed behind them.  The men looked back at the bloody lagoon, which became a lake even as they watched.  There were a few feeble spouts as some of the rights, still miraculously alive, swam round and round in a futile attempt to escape.  It was like gold flying up in the air and falling as plain dust.

They were lucky to be alive, but it was hard to reconcile the loss.  Captain Chandry fled to his cups and was raving before the sun went down.  William would never forget the sight of the captain pulling down the ship's flag and wrapping himself in the union jack.  Racing up and down the decks, he improvised: "Hail Merry Columbia, and the Land of Liberty!  Hail Merry Columbia, and the Land of Liberty!"

It took a while for the boatswain to chase him down and put him to bed.

 

VII

 

January, 1908

2°30'S, 35°53'W

 

From the
Deck Log of the
USS Florida
:

BOOK: At the Midway
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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