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A fourteen-year-old's heart-stopping sea adventure!
The war of 1812 is raging and fourteen-year-old Tom Cringle has just been made a lieutenant in the British navy. He's thrilled, but also worried that nobody ? especially hard, seasoned sailors ? will take a kid in charge seriously.
There's not too much time to worry though, because suddenly Tom finds himself off the coast of Jamaica: chasing elusive slave ...
A fourteen-year-old's heart-stopping sea adventure!
The war of 1812 is raging and fourteen-year-old Tom Cringle has just been made a lieutenant in the British navy. He's thrilled, but also worried that nobody — especially hard, seasoned sailors — will take a kid in charge seriously.
There's not too much time to worry though, because suddenly Tom finds himself off the coast of Jamaica: chasing elusive slave ships, fighting man-eating sharks, and enduring brutal battles.
Tom struggles with his conscience as he is ordered to travel across swampy wilderness to return a group of stolen slaves back to their master's plantation. Suddenly men are depending on Tom to save their very lives as they travel through uncharted territory with angry and vengeful pirates on their trail. And once again Tom tests his limits as he stands up for what he believes is right, even when authorities disagree with him.
During the War of 1812, a thirteen-year-old officer in the British navy records in his logbook his capture by pirates off the coast of Jamaica.
SOURCE: VOYA, December 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 5)
London and Portsmouth, England
May 1, 1812
I, Tom Cringle, two days before my thirteenth birthday, have made the decision of my life: to go to sea.
It came upon me this morning with the smell of tar, oranges, tobacco, sun-bitten wood, salt-eaten rope, and cargoes from Africa, Arabia, and even good old Cornwall, just down the crumpled coast from our lodgings here in London.
Well, you cannot imagine the sense of the sea, you land-loving folks who keep to the cobbled streets. I know because we live so close to the harbor, where the great ships come in. Even in the night, I hear the hawsers straining and the masts creaking and the flags of sails unfurling. And it is then, too, I hear again my father's voice as he tells his own brave stories of battles, tempests, shipwrecks, and other perilous encounters. It was from him that I first heard of dogwatches, and salt junk, and the curious, restless urge a man gets when dreaming of going upon the great sea.
This morning I have made my decision, so, for better or worse, it's off to sea with me. Off to the dream I've held in my heart since my father was taken in a storm aboard the ill-fated voyage of the Labrador Cutter, a merchant ship, some eight years ago.
You might wonder why the death of a father would make his son crave the shipwreck sea. Yet there it is, no mistake: I so love the waves, their sparkle, their lisping danger. And, if it be my fate to die upon, or in, the brine, let it be so, for I am my father's son. And, like him, my fortune awaits me, for better or worse.
That said, the day passes as any other except that I put hand to pen and write a plea to my mother's brother, Sir Cuthbert Holloway, a Lord of the Admiralty. Not every lad, to be sure, has such opportunities, such family connections. And, as I say, let fate carry me on its windward way because I'm prepared, and have been since I sat on my father's knee, hearing sea chanteys of mermaids fair and pirates foul.
Copyright © 2000 by Gerald Hausman
August 21, 1812
The Bream is known as a sixth-rater, nothing so grand as the first-rater that carries 875 men and boasts over a hundred cannon. We've got eighteen cannon, by comparison, but we're quite maneuverable with only a couple hundred men. Mostly we are a scout and guard ship, though some sloops are used for storeships and hospital ships as well. Our orders are to watch over the Caribbean colonies.
The evening's closing in, dark and rainy, and a gale is building in the west as I write in the half-light. The lieutenant of the watch has yelled to Jenkins, the lookout, "Sail on the weather bow." Which means, in nautical talk, of which I've become quite familiar, there's something out there.
"What does she look like?"
"Can't rightly say, sir. She's in that thick weather to windward."
"Stay where you are a little."
After squinting a bit, Jenkins calls, "She's a ship sir, close-hauled on the same tack as we are -- "
I'm on the deck, with no specific assignment to speak of. Not far off, my blond messmate, Johnny Johnstone, blinks into the wind. He and I have just cleared the meal and made the galley shipshape. It's a breath of fresh salt air for the both of us, and for me a moment to scribble.
The thing is, neither one of us has got used to the sway of the sea, though I believe I am faring a bit better than Johnny. They say some folks never get good sea legs, while others always have them. To tell you the truth, Johnny and I have pitched the contents of our bellies over the side at pretty frequent intervals ever since we went out of Portsmouth Harbor. With me, however, each day the sea grieves me less and when she rolls, I roll a little with her. I've mentioned this to Johnny, but he doesn't seem to want to try it. Usually he's pale of face and wet of lip, grinning greenly over the portside rail. How can you tell someone like that that it gets better?
Sometimes during a gale I am green with him, and then just the mere mention of food makes me trembly and knocky all over. I guess I'm Johnny's mirror, then -- both of us, a couple of frog-faced kids to the other, seasoned sailors. But mainly it's Jenkins who makes fun of us; the rest are mostly a kindhearted lot, and overlook us sick ones if they can.
The wind ever since noon has been blowing heavy squalls. One of these gusts is so violent, it buries our cannons in white surf. The sea's rolling us heavily, side to side. I see the last of the sun, red and raw, slumping behind a hillock of bloodstained clouds.
And, true enough, we're not the only spectators of this gloomy splendor. At some distance I spy a long warship, a frigate. Or possibly, a heavy corvette. She's tossing, too, rolling in the trough just like we are.
Jenkins hails from the foreyard, "That strange sail's bearing up, sir."
Then a flash, a whispery noise, followed by the boom of a cannon. The half-ringing, half-kissing sound of the shot makes me jump, but the ball falls short. Johnny looks at me, amazed. Neither one of us has ever seen a real battle before and, secretly, we've been hoping for one, though praying at the same time that we won't be seasick through it all. To us, all this is great adventure -- all but being greatly sick, that is.
So, Smythe, the second lieutenant, jumps from the cannon where he's standing and yells for the captain. Mr. Smythe's a gouty, potbellied sailor, with mutton chops and teeth like piano keys. His two front ones, always visible, have a space between them, through which he's forever spitting and venting sighs.
Captain Dally is a walleyed old veteran with a long-cut coat and stand-up collar. His white hair's braided and hangs down the back of his neck. At the tip of the braid he's got a marlinespike for decoration and good luck. He wears tight leggings and long boots. The men say he's "the last of the sea monsters," but Johnny and I think he's brave as steel.
Just now, he's on deck. "My glass, Wilson," he hollers at his steward, a peevish little man.
"She's close to, sir. You can see her plainly without it." Obstinate Wilson likes to talk back. He is standing there by the captain, receiving the stinging sea and looking like a butler.
"Give me the glass, you fool!"
As the ship rises and drops, our captain, soft-kneed and rolling with the heaves, gives his order: "Get our weather-bow gun ready." (By which he means, the bow cannon.)
"All ready forward there?"
"All ready, sir."
"Then throw a shot across her forefoot."
Boom! goes the cannon.
The other ship's to windward, coming fast upon us. Our shot is way off.
"I can't see much, can you?" Johnny asks, peering over the rail while holding on for dear life.
"I can," I tell him. It's true -- I can spot things like an osprey.
"Our enemy is yawing in the swells, and I can see the fifteen port windows of the main deck."
"What else can you see, young lad?"
It is Captain Dally speaking to me, and I feel a bit prickly to be overheard so, but, anyway, I tell it just as I see it.
"Well, sir, I can make out the cannons on the quarterdeck and fo'c'sle."
"How many does she have?"
"Give me the number, lad," he snaps.
"At least eight, sir."
"Can you see what he is, then?"
"Even without a pennant, I know by the rigging that it's an American frigate, sir."
"My word," admires the captain, screwing up his face, "you see as well as Wilson with a glass, or Jenkins aloft."
Johnny laughs. Shaking his head, he lets go of the rail for a second and thumps me on the back. "One day," he vows, "you'll get a commendation for those eyes!"
"That he will," confirms the captain, moving swiftly away with Wilson at his side.
As I look on, three jets of flame leap from the ship's main deck. The sound of the cannon is followed by a sharp crackle and a shower of splinters from our foreyard.
We've been hit!
Jenkins calls to the captain, who's using his glass as if it were a baton, waving it all about. "We're badly wounded, sir."
Jenkins is now standing beside the gun that's just been fired.
Captain Dally shouts, "You or the yard?"
"Both of us, sir, but the yard badliest."
"The devil! Come down, then, and I'll have you looked after."
Jenkins hobbles down from the foreyard. He's been nicked in the shoulder by a fat splinter that's jutting jaggedly from his blue navy coat.
As the ship's doctor takes him away, Captain cries to Coleman, the carpenter, "See what the foreyard damage is, Coleman." He yells, then, for Smythe. "All hands make sail, Mr. Smythe. This chap's too heavy for us."
"See clear to rig the booms out if the Bream lulls."
Instantly we're bowling ahead of our enemy.
Johnny and I go over to where Coleman's sweating to patch up the foreyard.
"How bad?" I ask.
"We're wounded, lad. Don't know if the foreyard'll carry the weight and drag of the sails."
Presently the captain orders the men to clear away the port guns. They do so just as the frigate pulls up again. All at once the wind's in her favor, and she's neck and neck of us. I hear the creaking of the cannon slides as our long twelve-pounder's readied up.
Mr. Smythe, chops lashed with spray, gives Captain a puzzled stare. "We can't outshoot the likes of her, sir," he says, sucking through the space in his front teeth.
"Never mind that," Captain Dally bellows.
Johnny and I are crouched down by Coleman, who's putting pine tar into a huge crack. I glance at the captain; his white braid's lashing back and forth in the wind. "Mind your aim," he warns. "Our best hope's to wing her."
To Smythe, he orders, "Starboard your helm and bring her to the wind."
The ship -- ours, that is -- comes round, level with the American frigate. Then our cannons blaze. Our long gun booms. Down comes the frigate's fore topsail in a thunder of spars and gear. The head of the topmast's been shot away.
A loud cheer from our men. Yet Captain Dally is sober and stoic as ever. "That'll do now, men. Let's make a run for it."
Mr. Smythe at the helm points us away from the foundering frigate. Immediately Johnny and I hear the rushing of our ship, the salty gale spattering the rigging. As we pull away I realize we've done nothing to help. Johnny and I have been hanging on the rail, or stuck to the deck. No one's given us orders to go up or down, or in between, for that matter.
"Is it over, then?" Johnny asks me.
I shrug. "I think so."
"Let's go to the rail."
We do so, and, looking back, I can see the deck of the frigate; and what a confusion there is! Without jackets and waistcoats, the Americans are running around in their trousers, ragged at the knee. Do sailors dress so? I think not. Then...these must be...
Anxiously Johnny asks, "What do you see, Tom?"
"Bloody pirates," I mutter.
He squints aft. "You can't mean it."
I nod. "It's true, Johnny."
Then I turn to our own warship and quickly scout the damage. In just one hit, our ship's been wounded -- and so have half a dozen men. And now, according to what I hear on deck, we've got cannon blasts still coming on as the foundering ship fires at will.
The more I look about, the more I notice things. In a lot of places, our rigging's cut to pieces. On the chance of a broadside hit, we could be sunk, just like that!
I turn to tell Johnny this news -- not that he couldn't see it for himself -- as we're so used to talking among ourselves, but he's nowhere to be seen. With all the noise and confusion, he's slipped away...gone aft, I guess, to check on the pirate ship, for it's still giving chase. You can hear booms in the night wind. But if I can barely see the frigate, I doubt Johnny can see any more of her with his poor eyesight. Then our ship rocks a little, and I hear someone say we've been hit astern.
Yet the weather's in our favor, blowing us to the north, so the pirate frigate, after firing a few more times, gives up the chase, holds fire, and tends to its wounds.
On the night sea,
some hours later...
Owing to our injuries, both men and wood, I am appointed -- much to Mr. Jenkins's chagrin -- to the position of lookout. Such a thing wouldn't occur under normal circumstance, but we're still under threat of attack, and quite shorthanded; Jenkins is in the infirmary unable to say a word. Johnny's prophecy is fulfilled.
My eagle eyes, which Johnny bragged about, have boosted me up a bit. Of course I'm still a midshipman, but now I'm a lookout, too. What a heady promotion this is! Some midshipmen stay stuck on this rank their whole lives. Then there are the ones so young, they still suck their thumbs. Jenkins spanked a young midshipman the other day -- right in front of the crew at mess. All the boy did was spill some burgoo on his trousers...well, that is how it is. Some of the men are mean, and some of the boys are clumsy. I myself mind the crockery as if it were full of explosive.
Anyhow, as soon as Captain Dally gives me this outrageous good news, I run off to find Johnny. He's nowhere near, though, and I've duties to see to, so it's up to the fo'c'sle watch with me.
(I'm going to draw what the fo'c'sle looks like, so you can visualize it better. Naturally, being a lookout means going up the topmast, where many lookouts fall asleep and some have actually fallen to their death. There's a trick to this watch, though -- tying yourself to the crosstrees, or, as I do it, lacing one's feet into the rigging. I'm not afraid of heights; I've always been able to scramble up as well as down. Good thing, don't you think?)
This night's long and shivery. I have to invent ways to keep from falling asleep. For a while I think about war, and how my first real battle came off almost too quickly for me to really feel it, if you know what I mean. There was the thunder of cannons, the whistle-whump of balls in the sea, but in spite of the fact I saw some of our men get hurt, including sly old Jenkins, I haven't had any feelings of remorse yet. How is that? I've always read that war makes people who are alive feel a little bit dead. But to be honest, I feel more alive!
After a while, looking out at the briny sea boldly etched in moonlight, I start to feel sleepy. My eyelids grow heavy, my knock-knees start to cave in, so I keep myself amused by playing a little game. This is done in the following way. As I pace to and fro, keeping watch, I check the sea for any sign we're being followed. My game eye has to pick out each new wave and watch as it disintegrates. And I have to do this over the entire seaward view. My head is turning like a weathercock.
Scanning the moony sea for whitecaps that might turn into spangling sailcloth is not, however, to be taken lightly. Stare, stare, stare until your eyes burn and your head aches, then, quick, snap my eyes shut, shake off the white brows of the sea. And look close for details onboard ship. Shake my head and count the holes. These, you understand, are injuries from our fight with the frigate.
I get up to 115 before I get tired of this; then it's back to staring down whitecaps. Somehow, doing this, I manage to stay awake.
The midnight crew is washing down the decks. New game to keep from getting drowsy: Seek the blood of some poor sailor that's been splashed fore and aft. In the moon the blood looks black. Then back to the monotony of the sea. I vow as I scan the snowy freckles at the end of the horizon that one day, I shall see my adventures published in a book. Yes, a book like poetry that people will not just shove onto their shelf. A book they'll read that'll tell, as I'm telling now, what really happens on a ship of war.
It's near dawn, the sky's going gray, when the good old Mr. Edwards calls my name. Our main gunner, he's awfully friendly to us boys. He comes up quietly -- sad melancholy man -- and says, "Mr. Cringle, Captain's sent for you."
"Captain?" I'm so sleepy, I almost forget what the word Captain means. It sounds funny in my ear, anyhow, as I am yawning.
"Yes, lad. It's young Johnstone."
My heart skips a beat. Something wrong?
"He's fading fast and wants to see you."
"Johnny...what's the matter with him?"
"You'd best come now."
"What about my relief man?"
"There's no one to do it just now."
I follow the old gunner down the lantern-lit dark. And belowdecks we go to the tight quarters where Johnny and I've bunked these many nights. He's lying, white-faced, upon the planking, sprawled out on his blood-soaked hammock. Except for a twitch at the corner of his lips, he looks quite dead.
From a nightwatch to a deathwatch! My heart's thudding, I'm sweating, Johnny's laid out like a corpse, but now I see he's still breathing. It must've happened when we were hit. He must've slipped away from where we were together, gone aft, where we took a blow.
Why didn't I look for him?
His gold locks are all sweaty, pasted to his forehead, which, as I say, is white as marble. I glance at Mr. Edwards, then at Captain Dally. They're the only ones there. All round, you can hear the steady, fitful snores of the wounded and the exhausted. The whole sleeping contingent of sailors, yet, up above, you can hear the footfalls scuffing as the men, cleaning up, go hard until dawn.
Captain Dally's got his prayer book and he's reading aloud from it. Otherwise you just hear the creaking ship, the snoring men, the scuffling shoes. "This young midshipman," Captain Dally says, "came of a good family in Limerick. I'd promised them a careful eye on their boy, but now, as you see..." He pauses, choked with emotion, eyes watery.
"Did he call for me, sir?" I ask.
"He desired to see you a moment ago. But you can see how it is -- he's all but gone." Captain Dally rubs his eyes with the fingers of his right hand.
Johnny's so still...so present...yet so nearly gone. Then I feel him stirring, and he arches his back, eyes open, and a shiver goes through him that causes my spine to tingle. His eyelids flutter.
Old steward Wilson comes up, then. His huge white eyebrows are raised in surprise, as they almost always are, but now, a little higher than usual. Captain Dally gets down, close, his face very near Johnny's, and I imagine he's checking for his breath, but then surprisingly he kisses him on the cheek. After which Peter Mangrove comes in and covers him with one of the captain's old tablecloths, one of those Johnny had only recently folded.
After prayers, Johnny's consigned to the sea in that very shroud, a badge of honor, I believe, as it was his work and he'd done it well. Two men tie him into his hammock and send him to his rest over the port railing of the ship where we'd so recently shared our thoughts. And that's that -- a friend, a life, snuffed out like a candle flame. I cannot believe it -- yet I must.
I will remember his dying face to my dying day: the wide eyes staring, but not at me, not at anyone, or anything. They are looking on eternity, as I imagine.
After the sea burial, I'm ordered to help the men with repairs. Mr. Coleman and his crew are at work on the starboard side, hanging by a rope scaffold, the sea lashing their backs with a white-whipped cat-o'-nine-gales, as they say.
There they swish back and forth, trying to fill the holes at waterline. They have buckets of burning pitch and trowels to do the patching. This sea-washing, brine-pummeling stuff I've no stomach for, thinking only of Johnny's staring eyes and cold, clammy skin. The remains of some fried corn porridge keep burping up. Am I going to be able to keep it down? I hand them their buckets, leaning into the spray.
Somehow, I manage to make it through the morning. Afterward, I assist in the unbolting of the half-loose cannon, which broke from its stanchion. I'm so sleepy, my legs rubbery from the long nightwatch, I trip on a peg sticking out of one of the scuppers and fall overboard!
Lucky for me the men are still in their net, because that's where I, headlong, crash -- into the arms of the trowelers. This brings on a raucous round of laughter. They're all so pleased at my folly.
Little do I know that when I pitch over, I'm like a cat, paws flailing for the purchase of something. My fingernails sink -- turns out, I hook into Peter Mangrove's pants, and almost jerk the two of us into the sea. Good thing he holds tight! The crew roars over this, their laughter salted, as it were, with sea-spray.
Then Peter cries, as I am still clinging to him like a barnacle, "Mr. Creengle, mind me leg, mon. Me only got dis one!"
A second volley of laughs, peels of merriment. Just imagine us seesawing back and forth on the net as the sea barks at us and the captain, all gruff and huffy, shouts, "Get back to work!" (Not even seeing that I'm clinging to Peter's leg.)
The joke, to be sure, is every seaman's fancy. Sailors love to laugh -- and who doesn't? -- but they have need of it more than others, I think. The seriousness of the job makes you crave a good joke. It seems a sort of rule, though, that no sailor's eligible for the job of cook unless he's got one leg.
Peter is one man everyone likes, and it seems to me that no one on the Bream cares that he is of African parentage, that he was born a slave, or that he is in any way different. I see him -- and Caboose -- as being just like the rest of us, only, perhaps, a bit more playful. It is to their credit, I think, that they never have an unfriendly face or an unkind word for anybody. I don't know any slaves myself, but I've heard they are a surly lot...this mostly from my rich uncle, Sir Cuthbert Holloway, who told me to stay well away from anyone with black skin.
However, I wonder what he'd think of Peter, who is not just a jokester but a pilot of great importance. He knows the fretwork of these Caribbean reefs like the pink map of his palm, and he can put us into harbor with his eyes clamped shut and his tongue twittering some indecent little ditty. (This he does in or out of port, just as the fancy takes him.)
I wonder, too, what Uncle would think of Peter's past exploits and whether this would temper his prejudice any. He actually sailed with Admiral Nelson and, believe it or not, his peg leg is carved from a plank of Nelson's conquering ship, the Victory! The men grant him a lot of respect for this honor, let me tell you. And, black or white, no one else has such credentials, not even Captain Dally.
After helping the patching crew, I have a spare minute to slip down to my hammock belowdecks to see if I've anything of Johnny's to remember him by. All of us midshipmen -- say, ten of us altogether -- are crowded into a ten-by-eighteen-foot room (like a closet, really) in the lower gun deck, which is close to the water level. The sea is loud enough for us to hear it slap the hull all night, anyway. It's no home away from home for me -- not without Johnny -- and right now its airless, tight, pitch-dark presence gives me the shivers. The smell of every seaman -- a combination of bitter tobacco and night sweat -- is permanently imbued here.
While searching among the things in my seabag, I ask myself how it's possible I didn't think about poor Johnny last night when I was on watch. How many times did I glance at the deck, seeing some poor sailor's moonlit blood, and not once, mind you, feel Johnny's fragile life ebbing away belowdecks?
Is this what it means to be a man? To overcome one's feelings and do one's job without sentiment? In which case, I've done my job well -- too well, in fact. Yet I know Johnny would've thought of me -- it's just the way he was. He always made sure I had my full plate first. But then there's me: I'd stood in the starlight, wondering whose blood I was looking at, when some of it was poor Johnny's. And all along he's dying belowdecks, dying, as I'm selfishly fancying my new deal as lookout; I couldn't wait to tell him the good news, which, now, he'll never know. Ah, what good is friendship on a fighting ship?
Copyright © 2000 by Gerald Hausman
Excerpted from Tom Cringle by Gerald Hausman Copyright © 2000 by Gerald Hausman.
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