"Beyond Danger and Adventure" - (Click Here To Read More)
Excerpt: “Beyond Danger and Adventure”
(The Adventures of a Boy and his Creature)
One hundred and fifty feet above the Pacific Ocean, twelve-year-old Nicholas Horatio Goodlad stood on the crow’s nest of the HMS Flying Fish, a Royal Navy exploration ship. He clutched the hip-high wood railing while holding tight to his hat. From this vantage point, he could see farther over the horizon than the officers on the quarterdeck, far below. He’d never been comfortable with heights, and braced himself, as he stared through a spyglass. Across the glittering blue sea, he watched a threatening mass of clouds spreading across the distant sky. The previous night he witnessed an eerie white ring circling the moon: an ominous warning that indicated bad weather was approaching.
He hollered down to the captain. “Sir. Looks like we’re in for a heavy blow out of the northeast.”
The captain scanned the horizon and remained quiet as a distant growl of booming thunder confirmed a storm brewing.
Minutes later, as the storm crept closer, Nicholas hailed the captain. “Sir, those clouds are darkening. This isn’t an easy squall. It’s making a beeline for us.”
Unable to see the extent of the storm, Captain Blackwell hollered, “Watch the skies, boy. I’ll decide if this is a difficult storm.”
Within half an hour, jagged lightning streaked through the distant sky. Silver flashes silhouetted the red and purple clouds. Nicholas knew thunder would soon rumble across the surface of the open sea. He steadied himself, as the mainmast moved in a nauseating, and jerky elliptical orbit. Riding the wild beast reminded him of ice skating at the end of a line of kids playing crack the whip. A downdraft of cold air rocked his body and plucked the wool cap from his blonde curls. He grabbed for the hat and lost his balance. He plunged over the railing of the crow’s nest. A thick tar-coated rope loomed in front of him and he gripped it tight with both hands. He jolted to a halt. For a minute, he dangled a hundred feet above the main deck until it happened. His grip slipped. He dropped like a lead balloon and collided with a baggy wrinkle; a fluffy rope used to prevent the rigging lines from chafing the sails. Nicholas’ body flipped upside-down and he fell another twenty, stomach-lurching feet. A loop of rope snagged his ankle and the momentum of the force propelled him over the railing. He reached the top of the arc and as he swung back, he grabbed a loose rope in an attempt to slow his speed. The futile move stripped the skin from his palms and his body slammed into the main mast. Blood rushed to his head. Ruby-red drops from a bleeding nose and split lip rained down. As he gazed down through a confused mass of spars and rigging lines, he spotted Pugwash, the master crewman.
The stout man with a waist as wide as a walrus shook his fist. “Ahoy, you scabby coward. Quit playing monkey boy up there and get down here. There’s a storm rising and you’ve got work to do.”
Nicholas felt queasy and closed his eyes to block the sight of the rolling deck. A quick spasm of nausea hit him and a stomach full of undigested breakfast erupted. The regurgitated mess missed Pugwash by inches. What should he do? If he moved, the loop could slip off his foot. A seventy-five foot drop onto the deck could spell sudden death.
The boss man barked, “Boy! Don’t make me come up there, or you’ll be sorry.”
Nicholas didn’t dare twitch a muscle and peeked down through narrow slits. As the rotund man was ascending the unsteady ratlines, the ship rolled and the noose holding his foot let go. He fell another twenty feet, grabbed a ratline, and was jerked to a stop.
Pugwash cut short his burdensome ascent. “Last chance boy, or I’m taking a switch to you.”
Nicholas clutched the quivering ratlines and descended as an acre of billowing sails, filled to their bursting point, banged against the rigging lines. He jumped onto the deck and grabbed a foul weather hat and coat. He ran off to his duty station near the forward port side. He’d suffered a bloody nose, split lip, bruised ribs and blistered hands, but worst of all was the embarrassing blow to his ego.
The captain, a better navigator than a storm watcher, had been caught off guard and hollered to the first mate. “All hands on deck. There’s a storm heading our way. Furl up them sails and be quick about it. The boson mate blew a shrill whistle and relayed the captain’s message to the sailors below deck. Fifty men scrambled from the hatchways and sprinted to their stations.
Sailors called topmen kicked off their shoes and swarmed up the ratlines to the topsails.
Pugwash hollered. "Up, up, you sluggards. Get those cluel'n, buntl'n and leechl'n lines going. We ain’t got time to dawdle.”
The Seventy-knot whirlwinds flattened the topmen against the swaying masts. They held fast to the rigging lines and sidestepped along the footropes hanging from the horizontal crossbeams. In unison, the men grabbed fistfuls of sailcloth, bunched them together, and repeated the operation until all the square sails were furled and held in place with lines wrapped around both the yard and the sails and tied in place.
Rain streamed down the captain’s gray beard as he screamed, “Helmsman, turn the bow into the waves.”
Four husky men threw their full weight into the wheel controlling the rudder, struggling to keep the ship from capsizing in the forty-foot waves. As sheets of rain traversed the deck sideways, Nicholas tugged the tar-coated hat over his bulging ears. Along with a dozen deck hands, he helped coil thousands of feet of rigging rope. There’d be no sleep for him tonight and he’d miss the boson mate’s usual wake-up call; Rouse up, rouse up - open your eyes - you mighty sailors of the deep.
He shuddered as the biting wind clawed at him, seeking entry into every gap in his wool coat. A wave of nausea mixed with anxiety enveloped him. He wanted to go below deck, shed his clothes wet through to his skin, crawl into his bunk and pull the thick blanket over his head. One thing stopped him - only yellow-bellied sailors hid below deck during a storm. He saw the captain lash himself to the wheelhouse and he ran a rope through his belt and tied it to a cleat attached to the railing.
He thought back ten months to when he had first boarded the HMS Flying Fish with: much anticipation, trepidation, and determination. The day was September 1st, 1802 and the ship was being outfitted with food and supplies in preparation for its yearlong voyage of discovery to the far side of the world. At the time, he hadn’t traveled more than fifty miles from Newtonia, and now here he was, twelve thousand miles from home, in a life or death struggle against the sea. He recalled his school days when the older kids bullied him. They taunted him by calling him monkey and flicking his protruding ears. He realized the teasing had been a trivial matter, because at the moment, survival trumped everything, including his moose like ears. His dream of adventure had become a nightmare. He felt sorry for himself. Why should he have to face death all alone, half a world away from his family?
He shivered and whispered to himself, “I’d cry if I wasn’t so cold.”
The ship rolled hard and a ton of seawater crashed over the side and sent him tumbling into the railing. He felt a sharp pain from several bruised ribs. A dozen deck hands, engulfed to their waists, threaded their arms through the rigging lines and hung tight, as the scupper drains swallowed buckets, rigging, and other loose objects and sent them tumbling overboard.
Nicholas remembered his father saying; A storm at sea can be as sneaky as a pickpocket and steal your valuables. And true to his father’s words, the storm snuck up, stole their steady tail wind and replaced it with a raging wind beast, wrapped in a blanket of water, known as a typhoon.
The tempest, battering the ship from every point of the compass, produced a sickening motion and deafening howl. Nicholas felt the cold planks press against his feet each time the ship rose from the troughs followed by a lessening of force as the bow pitched back into the valleys. He untied the restraining rope, grabbed a handhold, and hauled his body in the direction of the closest hatchway. A screaming whirlwind flung him head over heels and slammed him hard against the main mast. He caught his breath. He felt his arms and legs, one at a time. Good, nothing’s broken.
“Hey boy!” A sailor hollered. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get your butt below deck and don’t be ashamed to crawl.”
A hurricane of hail stones, the size of olives, bulleted Nicholas as he crawled headlong down the hatchway stairs. A thousand gallons of frigid water sloshed past him, flowing unimpeded into the lower decks.
A longboat broke loose from its tie-down ropes, thudded across the deck and bowled over several deckhands. It crashed over the railing and dangled ten feet above the water. A mass of deck hands wrestled the taut ropes and pulled aboard, what might become their lifeboat.
Above the roar of the storm, the watch bell clanged, no longer marking the passing of each half hour.
The captain shouted, “Sailor, secure that clapper before it tolls the death of us all.”
The wicked wind drowned his voice, and the bell continued to clang out of control. Below deck, a dozen men threw their weight onto the bilge handles, pumping water from the lower part of the ship. Shipboard rats skittered past the men’s legs and bounded two steps at a time to higher ground.
A Midshipman, out of breath, addressed the captain. “Sir, the bilge water’s rising and my men are exhausted.”
The captain snapped at the sailor. “Well, don’t stand there with your finger up your nose, Mr. Bligh, double up your men.”
The mainsail’s canvas screamed as it ripped free from its rigging lines and split into ribbons from top to bottom. As a result, the lines slackened, and the pulleys ceased doing their job. High above, a rope broke and released a massive iron pulley. It fell in a wide arc towards a sailor, straddling a yardarm. The man ducked and the fifty-pound iron block swung skyward. It reached the peak of its arc and swung back. It walloped the backside of the disoriented man and knocked him off his perch. He was plunging headfirst onto the main deck when a horizontal boom broke loose and batted his flailing body overboard.
Nicholas took a gulp of air. “Man overboard! Man overboard!”
He leaned over the railing and pointed with and outstretched hand at the sailor while the
hungry wind devoured the man’s fatal cries for help. A lightning bolt split the sky and illuminated, for an instant, the churning sea. Nicholas watched as the sea swallowed the
A deckhand yelled to another sailor, “See, I told you this storm would kill one of us before it was over.”
Nicholas shivered at the careless words. He was only ten when he first saw a dead body laid to rest in a flag draped wooden casket. It was at his Uncle Freddy’s funeral. His favorite uncle, a Royal Navy officer, e was killed by a splintered timber from cannon fire during the bloody Battle of Copenhagen. His uncle had been a soft-spoken man, much like his own dad. While the adults mourned the death, his mom comforted him by saying; Uncle Freddy’s time in this world has come to an end. We will long remember him in our hearts. Together, they lit a candle in his memory.
A blast of frigid seawater assaulted his face with needle-like stings. A fifty-foot spar snapped and crashed onto the deck. It fell ten feet from away and carved an ugly scar in the oak plank. He shivered and touched the acorn-shaped pendant hanging from his neck, a Christmas present from his mother.
Captain Blackwood’s voice wailed. “Helmsman. Keep control of that rudder. You’re drifting towards starboard.”
Desperate to keep the ship on course, the crew tied thick ropes to the wheel to hold the rudder in place.
The helmsman whispered, “Please God, help our rudder to hold its course.”
The wind abruptly shifted course and the steering ropes attached to the wooden steering mechanism, snapped. The massive rudder slammed into the oak hull and split itself in half.
The helmsman hollered, “Captain, sir. The ship’s wheel is dead. She won’t answer the helm.”
The ship tilted broadside at forty-five degrees and the yardarms kissed the sea.
Quicker than Nicholas could say, shiver me timbers, typhoon be gone, the rain stopped. The ominous black clouds thinned, the snapping canvas quieted and the roaring wind died a quick death. Calmness descended as foamy ripples sloshed against the hull. Fat raindrops dripped off the limp hanging, Union Jack. Broken spars littered the deck. Yards of sailcloth hung in tatters, damaged beyond repair. The loose hanging pulleys and rigging banged against the masts.
The captain held a brass-speaking trumpet. “Listen up men. You can thank God later that we’re still alive. We’re gonna’ be in the eye of this typhoon for a short time before the other half attacks us with an equal vengeance.”
He surveyed his pitiful ship and crew. “Repair the damaged rigging, reset the sails and secure anything loose. Now get moving.”
The entire crew, including the scientists, went to work swinging axes and cutting down the spars that dangled from the lower yardarms. Nicholas, with his clothes plastered against his body, raced against time, untangling rigging lines, doing his part to make the ship seaworthy.
Nicholas determined his best chance of survival was hiding in one of the several watertight pantries next to the galley. He plunged down the slippery ladders and ran through the constricted passageways littered with fallen objects. He stubbed his toe on a loose plank, and the glass shards from several broken lanterns crunched under his bare feet.
He opened the creaky door as musty air from the dim storeroom assaulted his nose. He lit an oil lantern, revealing helves ten feet high loaded with foodstuffs lined the walls. The lions-share of the floor was occupied with barrels of beef and pork soaked in brine, and bricks of wax-covered cheese.
He thought back to the fall day he had boarded the HMS Flying Fish, with his sea chest in tow, that had been endearingly packed by his mother. He wished he could have packed all his favorite books but was limited by space. He took part in the preparations being made to sail around Cape Horn and explore the uncharted islands off the West Coast of South America.
The tearful good-bye to his mother, father and little brother Jonas, had been bittersweet. His Uncle Freddy, who had spent a lifetime at sea, had told him; No matter how hard you practice, saying good-bye to your family and friends never gets easier.
Nicholas’ dream of becoming a Royal Navy officer required abandoning the comfort and security of his family and friends. He needed three years sailing experience prior to applying for Naval Academy. He looked forward to studying: navigation, mathematics, meteorology, gunnery, maritime law, naval ship formations and battle tactics.
Because his family was poor, he knew the odds of being accepted to the academy were stacked against him, but his dad reassured him by saying; That’s what dreams are all about - beating the odds.
The exploration ship had sailed out of Plymouth Sound, the same port the Mayflower departed from, 183 years earlier. The hundred pilgrims on board were in pursuit of their own hopes and dreams.
Once aboard the ship, Nicholas had been shocked with the sailor’s crude habits of spitting, cussing, and their lack of basic bathing and toilet skills. The men commenced to make fun of his oversized ears and adolescent high-pitched voice. Back home his mother had taught him to deal with bullying in school by saying nothing and maintaining a positive attitude. The advice had worked in school as well as aboard the ship. After several months of hazing, the crew accepted Nicholas as one of their own. He made it a goal to learn the first name of the entire crew.
A noise distracted his daydream. Kruncha-crunch. slurpa-crunch. Kruncha-slurpa-crunch.
He pushed aside a sack of dried raisins. The source of the noise stood in front of him. Nicholas stared speechless at the stubby legged intruder standing upright. The noisemaker’s white whiskers twitched. He estimated it to be sixteen inches tall and resembled an overweight rat with spindly arms. The creature held a piece of dried meat in its three-fingered hand. Furry brown hair covered its pudgy body. Various sized bumps littered the creature’s noggin, which was as hairless as a smooth river rock. Nicholas smiled and gazed at the amber eyes bulging from it’s fat, furry face. The tailless, rodent-like creature responded with a playful smile.
Nicholas greeted the animal in the same way he talked to Rufus and Spithead, his dog and cat back home. “Hi, little fellow, what kind of animal are you? I’m assuming you’re a boy.”
The creature’s ears twitched. “Boy, yes. White-whiskered, mugwug scavenger, I am.”
Nicholas stumbled sideways into a sack of black beans.
His mouth opened and he spluttered. “You . . . you can talk?”
The mugwug waddled closer. “Like you, talk fine, I can.”
The creature licked his hairy lips, tore off a chunk of dried meat, and using his flat thumbnail, flipped the morsel to Nicholas.
Nicholas grabbed the tidbit, popped it into his mouth and continued the odd conversation. “My name’s Nicholas Horatio Goodlad, what’s yours?”
The creature shrugged.
Nicholas responded, “You know, a shrug isn’t an answer.”
The mugwug replicated his shrug. “No name, have, I do.”
Nicholas frowned. “Even my dog and cat have a name. You need a name.”
The creature’s head shook. “Cat. Met one, never, I have.”
Nicholas smiled. “I can see you haven’t missed many meals. Can I call you, Vittles?”
The creature grinned. “Name. Like it, I do. Keep it, I will.”
“I must look like a giant, why aren’t you afraid of me?” Nicholas said, moving closer.
The creature continued gnawing the dried meat. “Friendly boy. Know this, I do.”
The ship rolled hard, and Nicholas tumbled to the floor.
Eye to eye, the creature winked. “Not so big, you are, huh?”
Nicholas leaned against a barrel. “How do you spend your time onboard?”
Vittles’ eyebrows wiggled. “Sneaky, I am. Hide good. Scavenge food, I do.”
Nicholas wondered if the mugwug’s jumbled speech might be due to his forked tongue.
He asked, “Do you talk to the other sailors?”
The mugug’s head wagged. “No. Only you, speak to, I do.”
Nicholas frowned at the creature. “Why is that?”
Vittles grinned, exposing milk white teeth. “Watch you. Smart, you are. Learn, from you, I do.”
“Whoa. Wait just one minute,” Nicholas cried, “You’ve been spying on me?”
Vittles stopped nibbling. “Yes. Peek often, at you, I did.”
Nicholas said, “That’s rude, you know. What else do you do on board?”
The mugwug’s amber eyes roamed in their sockets. “Snoop about, captain’s cabin. His rum, drink it. Log book. Study it. I do
Nicholas replied, “My goodness. You can read the King’s English?
Vittles’ bumpy noggin rocked side to side. “Read write, I can’t. His drawings. Learn much, I do. Ugly bugs, draws he does. Hate them, I do. Mud turtles, double hate.”
Nicholas asked. “Are there other mugwugs on board?”
Vittles jabbed his pudgy tummy with a stubby thumb. “No. Alone, I am.
The mugwug strutted in the confined space. “Wander world, explore. This ship. Mine, it is.”
Nicholas laughed. “You think you own this ship?” I doubt the captain would agree with you.”
Vittles shrugged. “What place, come from, you do?”
Nicholas told him he was born in Newtonia, a fishing village a hundred miles northeast of Londonderry. Only miles downwind from the smelly pig farms on Hogshead Island.”
A spider scurried by Vittles leg.
The creature snorted loud enough to stampede a herd of deaf sheep. “Chugga-wugga, hob-nobbler. Kill it, you must. Hate, wiggly pests, I do.”
Nicholas swatted the attacker. At the same moment the pantry shook from the rolling ship. A burlap bag fell and missed Vittles by a whisker.
Nicholas responded. “Wow, that was close. It’d be terrible to get squished by a sack of salted rat meat.”
Vittles squeezed his snout. “Stinky rats, hate them also, I do.
Nicholas responded. “Sorry. I was just kidding. The crew says the salt pork tastes like rat meat.
He made a safe place for Vittles to sit. “Better hang on, the second half of this typhoon will soon hit us where it hurts.”
Vittles jumped to attention. “Hurt me, not. Brave, I am. Ride, wild ship, I will.”
Nicholas tied a rope to the pantry door and secured it tight. He braced himself with both legs and waited for the typhoon’s second attack.
The HMS Flying Fish slammed into a fifty-foot wave and the pantry shuddered, causing three bags of brown rice to fall to the floor. Inside the galley, a mutiny was in progress as cast-iron pots, kettles, and copper cauldrons crashed, banged, and fought against each other. The battered and out of control vessel turned broadside into the waves; a ships most vulnerable position in heavy seas. Churning water gushed over the side and continued to flood the lower decks.
Timbers shivered and rebelled against a hundred groaning beams. A spar broke loose and flew like an arrow into the deckhouse. The bulkheads succumbed to the pounding force and began falling like dominoes, causing all three masts to break off at deck level. The unbending backbone of the ship, the keel, broke in half and the ship collapsed into sections no longer resembling a sailing vessel. Thousands of air bubbles escaped upwards as the ship spiraled downwards to the domain of Davy Jones’s locker. Superstitious sailors believed the secrets of dead sailors and sunken ships, lay concealed in that fabled place.
Nicholas’ ears were beginning to hurt from the water pressure when a vertical crack opened in the pantry wall and began spitting seawater at the duo. He remembered his grandfather saying; Life aboard a ship is like being in jail, except there’s a greater chance of drowning aboard a ship than being hung in jail.
An adult dose of doubt overcame him. He knew any sailor worth his salt would prefer dying at sea than on land, but he was too young to die - in either place. He just wanted to go back home.
The oil lamp flickered and plunged the enclosure into darkness blacker than sticky tar.
Vittles snorted. “Spooky, it is. Met ghost, one time, I did. Short story, told him.”
Distracted, Nicholas asked, “What kind of story did you tell your spooky friend?”
Vittles snickered. “Duh! Ghost story, told him, I did.”
Nicholas found a little truth in what his friend had said. “Heck, maybe we do have a ghost of a chance of surviving. Can you swim?”
Vittles noggin bobbed. “Swim good, I can.”
The pantry’s timbers shivered and splintering wood announced their enclosure had separated from the ships structure. Half filled with air, buoyancy sent it a hundred feet to the surface. Nicholas loosened the rope tied to the door and kicked it open. He boosted himself out, took a deep breath, and scanned the area. The stormy beast was vanishing beyond the cloudy horizon.
Vittles hugged Nicholas’ leg. “Mugwug’s life, saved, you did. Friend, of mine, you are,”
He plopped overboard and floated tummy side up. “Wow-wee, wild ride, it was. Wee bit scared, I was.”
Nicholas grinned. “Double wow-wee. Giant bit scared, I was.”
— END EXCERPT —
Contact me at: Donnelson1@mac.com if you would like to read the entire manuscript.