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Friday December 2, 1865 Sag Harbor. L.I., N.Y.
Ice-cold water begins to affect Ben-quam's ability to concentrate. It rises above his knees as he slowly walks over the soft, muddy bottom of a small tidal pond the Shinnecocks call Neish-Mimipeek (Eel Pond). Through a small outlet, its level rises and falls with that of Great Peconic Bay. The sun had set a half-hour ago and the teen-aged Indian now has difficulty seeing his way. He slowly feels the bottom ahead by constantly stabbing the mud with the tri-prong-headed spear.
"Just one more," he says with trembling lips. "Just one more and I can go home."
Eleven eels are strung together through their gills by a long cord that is tied to his belt. They float and sink behind him as he walks. Occasionally, he breaks through thin, skim ice that is just forming. It is a cold December evening. On the verge of quitting, he suddenly feels the telltale wiggle of an eel on the end of his spear.
Quickly he adds it to the stringer. As he walks out of the water he begins searching the horizon south of the pond for a break in the line of scrub pines that dominate the land. He finds it and climbs a well-worn path up a slight hill. The Shinnecocks call the path Niamuck, "the-place-between-the-bays." Centuries of Indians created it by dragging their wooden dugout canoes back-and-forth from North Sea (Peconic Bay) to South Bay (Shinnecock Bay). Whites call it Canoe Place. The path rises but a few feet onto a level plain and joins the Montauk Trail. The Trail is a sandy, dirt road, rutted by wagon wheels and horse tracks. Far to the east, it begins at Montauk Point and ends on the banks of the East River across from Manhattan.
Benquam shivers in the cold night air. For warmth he begins running slowly to the east, toward his reservation. As he does, he thinks how his mother and aunt will smoke the eels for days. Both families will have a traditional Christmas treat. He wishes he had speared more when his thoughts are suddenly interrupted by the sound of horses and a wagon on the road behind him. He turns, and in the last vestiges of a fading twilight sees two men on the rig. He thinks they must be lost. They near him and stop.
"Do you need help?" he asks the driver, a bearded man. He does not answer nor does he see a third man jump off the back of the wagon. The man silently, quickly comes forward. In his hands is an open burlap bag. He pulls it over Benquam's head. A second man jumps off the seat and wraps his arms around the Indian. Holding him immobile, someone begins tying his hands behind his back. Together they throw him into the back of the wagon on a bed of hay. Before they close the tailgate someone binds his feet.
The 15-year old lies in the back of a wagon, steadily bouncing off its hard boards as the horse-drawn wagon races down the sandy road. Benquam is dumbfounded as to why this is happening to him. What would they want from me? he asks himself. Wild questions flit about in his mind as to why the men he sought to help did this to him.
The driver steadily whips the horses keeping them at a fast past for more than two hours. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the horses, now exhausted, slow. Suddenly, the wagon's ironclad wheels begin rattling over cobblestones, then abruptly come to a stop. As he lies there, listening to men talking in hushed voices, Benquam feels the push of a light breeze against the bag on his head. His nostrils flare. He senses the air is laden with salt. They are at a landing, at a dock. He hears loose lines, somewhere above him, played by the wind as they rattle against the mast of a ship. He knows where he is.
What will they do with me? he asks himself. He momentarily struggles with the ropes on his hands and feet but they are still tightly tied.
After a few minutes, he hears someone open the wagon's tailgate. Two strong hands pull him off. The next moment he is flung into the air and onto a man's shoulder. Someone else's hands steady him there. The man climbs up a ramp carrying him onto a ship. He stands there for a moment as if not knowing where to go. Benquam feels the man sway slightly as the ship gently rocks.
"Open dah hatch, damn it!
"Dis kid's heavy," the man says quietly to someone else as he now heads for the forecastle. "I ain't gonna wait wid him all day."
He carries the boy through a hatch then down a ladder, bumping the boy's head and shoulders against the sides of the narrow passageway.
"Pud him in da back," another voice says.
Benquam is abruptly dropped onto the straw-filled mattress of a lower bunk.
His hands are untied but the sack remains on his head without the rope. He hears someone come down the ladder while rattling something metallic. As he lies in the bunk, his right leg is pulled out and clamped in a shackle. The activity's noise disturbs a man who is asleep in the upper bunk.
"Whatcha got derh?" he asks.
"Yur good luck charm," the man says as he locks the shackles to a bunk post. "You might as well git up. It's midnight. Yur watch is already mustering on deck."
"Someone will be here in the morning to look after you," one of the men who kidnapped him says to Benquam. "You'll be okay here."
This is a new voice, one that Benquam has not heard before. Was it the driver, he thinks? His voice is deep, his speech slow, reassuring.
"Don't worry, nothing bad is going to happen to you. Life could be worse. At least you're still alive. You've got a great voyage before you."
"What kind of ship is this?" Benquam asks.
"Can't you tell by the smell? I guess not," he says. "It's been a while since there's been a whale on her decks. It's a whaler."
The man finds a blanket and throws it over the boy.
"Sleep tight," he says as he climbs the ladder.
Benquam lies there without moving. He feels the boat continually rocking at the dock. He hears men snoring and activity on deck outside.
My father will wonder why I never came home. My mother will cry. She cries easily. Damn these men! He reaches for his ankle and feels the leg iron firmly gripping his leg. Somehow he falls asleep.
* * *
"Oh Ben, where are you, my son?" cries an elderly women. "He has never done this before. Maybe he drowned."
At first Benquam's father does not answer. Finally, he says, "There's light enough now. I will go to the crossing-over place to look for him."
Benquam's uncle also goes with him. They walk past the reservation store that is still dark inside. They reach the sandy road and turn west to the crossing-over place. The sun has just topped the horizon when the man sees a flash of light along the south edge of the road.
"What's a stringer of eels doing here?" he asks his brother. "This is not a good sign. There's his spear. This must be what Ben speared. He carried the eels and spear with him."
Lights are now on in the store as they head back. Wood smoke from a newly-started fire is pouring out the chimney. Benquam's father drops the eels next to the steps and goes inside. He smells a pot of coffee boiling on a potbellied stove as three elderly men sit around it waiting with empty cups in their hands.
"Has anyone seen my son Ben?"
They all answer no.
"He was spearing eels yesterday over at Neish-Mimipeek and never came home."
"Has anyone strange been here lately, yesterday?"
"No one," says one of the men.
"But Cap'n Lester, Andrew Lester, the younger one was here yesterday," says another man. "He was looking to see if any of us wanted to sail with him again. He said he needed a harponeer."
"He said his brother Hiram was again in command of Tranquility."
"Where is she?"
"Where else would she be? At Sag Harbor."
Three days later, Benquam's father finds a horse he can borrow, and is in Sag Harbor. He goes directly to the harbormaster's shack on the long wharf.
"Any ships sail from here in past few days?" he asks.
"You missed the boat," the harbormaster says jokingly. "Yes, Tranquility sailed last night. There ain't another whaler going out of here that I know of. There's not likely to be one. There ain't any whales left. We killed 'em all."
Saturday, Dec. 3, 1865 Sag Harbor, L.I, N.Y.
It is mid-morning as a bright, late-fall sun floods a cloudless sky making the day appear warmer than it is. The scene is harbor side, inside a palatial house built on a hillock immediately overlooking the East Water Street docks. Beyond the inner harbor, to the east and north, is Shelter Island Sound. Water seems to be everywhere about Sag Harbor. Despite the sun, the surrounding land has a somber cast. It has already felt the heavy, frosty hand of an approaching winter. Dull browns, burnt umbers, yellows and tans have replaced the short-lived vibrant colors of fall. Only the leathery, rust-colored leaves of scrub oaks tenaciously cling to their branches to hold their positions until spring. A fresh, chill wind intermittently blows from the northwest, rattling leaves and sending ripples across the surface of the harbor's waters like cats' paws on morning dew.
The Brown House is one of a dozen grandiose structures scattered along "Blubber Row" built by the barons of sea trade-owners of ships, docks, stores and chandleries, and successful whaleship captains. The house is a typical, palatial mansion of the Federal Period in American architecture. Ephraim Brown's father, a Sag Harbor merchant, built it in 1825.
Inside the house, in a large, sun-filled living room, three men sit silently, pondering an earlier debate, momentarily immobile and engulfed in over-stuffed leather chairs. A Negro servant has just left the room, depositing a second decanter of coffee on a sideboard. For the past two hours, the three men have been debating the value of outfitting another whaleship. Suddenly the youngest, Andrew Lester, rises and moves to the sideboard and refills his cup.
"Anyone else want coffee?" he asks and stands waiting for an answer.
Without speaking, a second man, his brother Hiram, rises. He walks across the room to a large wall of many-paned windows. He stands there, looking out onto Water Street, concentrating on activity outside, just below the house. He scans his ship whose bowsprit seems to be pointing directly at him. Without turning, he waves his arm in a "no," responding to the question. "No, thank you, Andrew," he then says.
The third man, Ephraim Brown, sits motionless and unresponsive.
Smoke from their pipes has clouded the room. The rich, aromatic aroma of Latakia tobacco dominates the air. In the back of the room, opposite the wall of large, panoramic windows, is an oversized fireplace. Before the Negro left the room, he had added more oak logs to an already robust fire. They crackle, hiss and complain. Bits of ice on the wood, rain that accumulated and froze a few days ago when outside, melt in the intense heat and immediately turn to steam. Hiram Lester, in nautical garb, briefly turns to watching the activity on the docks just below the house. He turns his view again to the left and studies the lines of his ship. A slight smile spreads across his lips.
His smile quickly disappears when he sights the Concordia. She has been tied at the city's Long Wharf pier since early October after a rather fruitless search for whales in the South Atlantic. He remembers speaking to Alfred Rogers, the captain of the 310-ton whaler. Lester lucidly, painfully recalls Roger's words when they met: "In all of four months, we found but two whales, a small sperm and a right whale. That hardly paid for the food the crew consumed."
Her sails are gone, probably sold by now, Hiram says to himself. I guess they are slowly taking her apart. What a shame. I hate seeing a ship die; any ship.
Hiram returns to an overstuffed seat. All this is a pause in their intense discussions.
"Nearly two months," says Brown as he breaks the silence, "have passed since we three, and more than a dozen elders of the Company, met here to decide our ship's and our fortune's futures, if there is one. After nearly a day of furious debate, which ended in a one-vote majority cast by you," he says as he turns to Capt. Hiram Lester, "the Company has given you the authority to make one last sail for whale before we find a better use for Tranquility."
Brown pauses for a moment. "Now, cousins, how are we going to do it? Do you think it will pay for the Company's cost of outfitting the ship?"
Hiram does not immediately answer. He dislikes Brown's use of the word cousins. He feels Brown's familiarity is an attempt to pull himself closer to him because they are related.
Ephraim Brown, still sitting, is the oldest. He sports a bulging belly that puts a strain on his vest's buttons. After the diatribe he decides to stand up and walks to the window for a better look at the dockside activity. The stress of rising puts a flush on his already sanguine face. He stands there for a moment, silent, his hands clasped behind his back. He turns to look back at the two who are still seated.
"There is still time to abort this venture," he says in a voice that is shrill, irritating, and unmanly though not effete. Initially, one would expect a richer voice to emanate from such a portly body. He steps closer to the two who remain seated. He is not tall, maybe 5 feet and 3 or 4 inches. His face is round, cherubic, full. Strands of white hair sweep across the balding top of his head and heavy, white sideburns almost hide his ears. His white, bushy eyebrows partially obscure his deep-set gray eyes. He is fast approaching 60 years of age.
"You both know I am against it," he continues his harangue. "I have been from the beginning." He pauses, leaving an opening for either of the two men to respond. They don't ... not at first.
Brown is a niggardly man whose greatest concern during the last 45 years of his life has been the accumulation of wealth. Some might describe him as being conservative, frugal, tight-fisted, or almost Scrooge- like. He is all of these but only niggardly succinctly and fully describes his character. And, he would be all of these even if he hadn't been an avid Quaker in his youth. He is a member of a dozen Sag Harbor Quaker whaling families who have inhabited the East End of Long Island's South Fork for the previous two-and-a-half centuries.
"We should have voted to turn the ship into a coastal trader," Brown continues. "If we had, we could make money almost from the beginning. A hunt for whales, even if successful, means that we will not realize a profit for three, four or even five years. I don't know if some of the families in the Company can last that long."
He again pauses as if hoping one of the others would contribute.
"Be honest," Capt. Lester finally asks, "why do you persist in trying to scuttle this voyage? The Company has already agreed, there will be a sail for whales and there is nothing you can do about it. We sail in three days hence. It is done!
"What is your motivation behind all this useless chatter?"
"I need money," answers Brown. "I need it now or as soon as possible. Because of the war my chandleries have suffered greatly. Their paltry marine sales have me on the verge of bankruptcy. The war has not been lucrative."
"That is no longer a prerogative we can enjoy," Capt. Hiram says as he stands up. "I cannot promise you a greasy ship; nor can anyone in these days of turmoil. However, I can promise you that I will do all that is humanly possible to ensure a successful voyage. The rest will be up to God and His will.
"We can also supplement our catch by obtaining seal skins," Hiram adds. "I know some of the islands in the South Atlantic are again filled with copious numbers of seals. Some have been overexploited but the seals recover quickly. Eight, ten years is all they need. And the market for seals in great among the Chinese."
"I never thought of that demand," says Ephraim.
In both character and form, Hiram Lester is diametrically the opposite of Ephraim. Lester is a well-weathered man of the sea. He has just passed 50, and again finds himself captain of Tranquility, the ship's master. He is tall for men of his era, a bit over 6 feet, lean but muscular with a prominent, square-set jaw. His lips are slight. His hair is dark black, graying only at the temples. His eyes are dark brown and guarded by a pair of bushy, black eyebrows that could use trimming. Normally, he is not especially talkative and when he does he is sparse with his words. All these characteristics command a presence in any group in which he might appear. He looks as a sea captain should. One would almost swear that in his presence there is a slight scent of sea salt in the air.
Excerpted from THE LAST WHALER by Nicholas Stevensson Karas Copyright © 2010 by Capt. Nicholas Stevensson Karas . Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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