William, May 1888
William and the men assigned him had completed the first big task of repairing the ship: clearing away the debris. They salvaged what they could, and set adrift that which was too splintered or weak to be saved. Most of the large scale repairs were complete, and the ship once more was underway. They’d rounded the Horn, having sailed through another patch of rough weather but sustaining no damage to speak of save a small ripped sail. However, that was easily replaced from their store of supplies. Unfortunately, he had to work with Tobias to reconcile the log of the ship’s supply for repairs, and spoke tersely with the first mate whenever he had need of him.
“It would be simpler for me to maintain the log myself,” he suggested to Tobias a week earlier.
“Perhaps for you, but I do not trust you, Mr. Johnson. I will keep the log and not have you spending uselessly our funds to replace supplies so that you may carve unnecessary ornament into our ship simply to soothe our boredom.” Tobias snapped the log shut under William’s nose and started to walk away.
“Perhaps if we caught some whales, boredom would not be an issue,” William snapped back, instantly wishing he hadn’t.
Tobias stopped and glanced back over his shoulder from the stairs leading back up to the first level below deck. “If we were not so cursed by your presence aboard this ship, maybe we would have seen a whale. More than six months have passed since we left home, and now are we sailing into prime whaling waters and have seen nothing of the beasts. Perhaps when next we make port, you should disembark and darken our days no longer.”
How many times had William railed against the ridiculous nature of believing in such a curse? He had no stomach to fight with Tobias and so had spent the last week dealing with him as little as possible—and carving as much ornamentation into the ship as Captain Matthews permitted, though he didn’t tell the Captain that the fuel behind his desire to carve such artful visions of whales and sea monsters was to spite the first mate.
Several times now he tried to speak to Captain Matthews too, mostly about his father, but the Captain was always busy or called away by the first or second mates, who not only outranked William but were the two people he most loathed aboard the Vance Thurgood. Now he sat across from Thomas, whose company was far more welcome than that of many of the other officers, at least until Thomas spoke.
“How goes your search for information about your father?” Thomas was busy cleaning harpoons that were not used these last six months at least, but at William’s earlier questioning, Thomas insisted they needed it else they might succumb to rust.
“Not well at all, as a matter of fact. None will talk to me, let alone of my father. I suspect it has something to do with Tobias’ insistence that I am cursed, and so is the ship. They whisper to one another when they pass, none will meet my eye.” He fit a prettily carved railing piece in place and began to fasten it with measured strikes from his hammer.
“Maybe I should speak with them?”
William shook his head. “And have them put you in the same barrel as myself in regard to their respect? No, that wouldn’t do. Thank you though. Besides, this is something I must do myself.”
To his surprise, Thomas stood in a huff, taking the harpoon with him. “We started this to find the answer together. Since then you have not brought me in on your plans at all, William Johnson. Upon our return we will be brothers, and so your father’s fate will hold great importance to me too, for the sake of Catherine’s happiness. Find a way to let me help or there is little purpose to my being here. I had more work by tenfold on my old ship than I do here, polishing already-clean harpoons and hooks.” Thomas stalked off, leaving William staring after him in surprise.
They rarely disagreed, rarely argued. Until now, he wasn’t even aware that his friend felt any measure of frustration with him. However, try as he might, William couldn’t think of Thomas and his father without tasting a bitterness upon his tongue, and so spent the remainder of the afternoon at his own work. He was going to re-carve the entire railing if he had to, just to annoy Tobias.
Days later, William climbed up the rigging to examine, overall, the state of the repairs he and the ten men working under him made to the ship (ten men, who, spoke only to him when necessary, he noticed, much as he did with Tobias). He was passed along the way by another sailor, who glared at him along his way. With a sigh, William turned on the rigging, looking over the deck below. His project to annoy Tobias by adding decoration to the railings was about three-quarters finished. He had only the quarter deck to carve now, and daren’t this afternoon when Tobias was at the helm.
He watched him, standing there as though rooted to the ship itself, yet light on his feet so that he could move at a moment’s notice without any effect from the rolling sea beneath him. William had an easy enough time moving about the ship by now, but Tobias began sailing as a child, and liked to remind others of his long experience and prowess, which, while shorter than the Captain’s, was certainly broadcasted more widely. Everyone spoke of how skilled Tobias was and ignored his volatile temper. They listened with rapt attention when he spoke, while William skirted around the group to get as far from Tobias’ booming voice as he could, all the while wishing he possessed the focus of the crew that he might better learn what fate befell his father.
But William had not the weathered face of a sailor, nor the ability to project his voice that so commanded not only obedience and attention as had Tobias. He was quieter, kept to himself and, much to Thomas’ chagrine, spent much of his spare time carving or writing letters to his sister. Sometimes William wondered at Thomas never writing to her, but then, he hadn’t when he was at sea before, and figured perhaps the man simply was not fond of writing.
My poor sister, he sometimes wondered, for he knew how she would delight in hearing from Thomas. He was careful to always write her that her fiancé was alive and well. William’s thoughts turned back to the ship and the crew as he descended from the rigging, content that his repairs would hold up against the sea and the winds. He couldn’t speak for its durability against a storm the likes of which struck them at Cape Horn, but then, the shipbuilders’ work could not even be guaranteed then and he was but a cooper.
As he set his feet down upon the deck, he looked up to see a small group of men surrounding Tobias. They all turned and glared at him, but William ignored them and began to gather his tools, which sat where he finished his work for the day. The ship lurched to the port side, sending his tools sliding out from beneath his grasp. William lunged after them, grasping up his hammer as he turned toward the helm, where Tobias stood at the wheel, wearing a proud grin. “Enough,” William muttered to himself, packing his tools away into the wooden box he’d built for them when he was a young apprentice.
He strode toward the quarter deck and around the group of men to stand beside Tobias. William grabbed one of the spokes of the wheel. “You did that on purpose.”
“No,” Tobias shooed his hand away. “The wind took the sails.”
“You’re lying. The wind is blowing north. There is no way it would have pushed the ship to the port side.”
Tobias smirked and the other sailors chortled. “A proper sailor now, are you? What if I did do it on purpose? There is nought you can do against my steering the ship how I like. Why do you make complaint? You didn’t lose any of your precious carving tools, nor did you fall overboard.”
“Much as we wish you had,” another sailor by the name of Barnes spoke up at Tobias’ shoulder. Barnes was short and squat, with bulging eyes, tan, knotted hands and barely any hair remaining on his head, which was never clean but rather spotted with tar.
“Shut it, Barnes, else you become more a pet to Tobias than ever. My quarrel is not with you,” William snapped back.
Barnes laughed. “The pup has grown some teeth. I would be wary, were I you, First Mate.”
“I have no fear of a cursed man save that he will keep our profits just out of our reach. Johnson, no one on board save your friend who boarded with you likes you. Not even the Captain will speak more than three words with you. We make port in a week for water and food; I suggest you leave then and wait for passage on some other ship home. Perhaps some merchants would take you on and you could be the Captain’s cabin boy,” he laughed.
William clenched his fist. He had never wanted to hit someone more than he wanted to hit Tobias right now. He knew the First Mate was goading him on, trying to convince him to some form of outrage that would get him kicked off of the ship. He could feel his fingernails bite into his palm and his eyes stung from staring unblinking at Tobias, as the salt air pressed into them.
“Look there men, so stands the cursed man, dumb at last. Good riddance to his voice, for now he cannot curse us worse than he has thus far.” Tobias turned away from him then, and assigned Barnes to maintain their course.
William stalked off, because it was either he return to his cabin or lose his temper entirely and hit either Barnes or Tobias…or both.
The next morning, William was roused from his bed by a great shaking, the likes of which he’d never endured upon the ship, not even when the storm raked across the beams and masts as they rounded the Horn. He opened his eyes to see that Walter hovered over him, shaking his shoulders.
“Come quickly, Thomas is fighting with Tobias,” he hurriedly explained as he turned from the room to sprint along the corridor.
William followed in such short order that he nearly tripped over his own feet as he struggled to tie his shoes and, at the same time run in Walter’s wake. The corridor was empty, his path to the stairs clear. At the base, he launched himself up them, using his hands to propel his body forward and upward and avoid hitting his head. William nearly rolled out onto the deck, and would have landed amidst the fight, but he stopped short and felt someone tug his shirt to bring him to the side. It was Walter, a man who had not engaged in the mocking of his father’s presumed ghost, nor refuted it.
William would not consider him a friend, nor would he think on Walter as a hindrance before now, but today the man rose in his estimation. “Shouldn’t we stop the fight?”
“And get drawn into it? No thank you,” Walter replied, scrunching up his nose in distaste. “I have little need to anger the First Mate.”
Just then, Tobias’ fist connected with Thomas’ ribs and William watched his friend fall to his hands and knees. He rushed forward, standing over Thomas, arms held wide. Walter may be afraid to oppose Tobias, but as the First Mate already hated him and he didn’t wish to stand by and watch his friend suffer—even a friend who had not spoken much to him lately—he could do little else but step in and try to stop the fight.
Tobias didn’t stop though, and launched himself at William instead. His fist connected with William’s jaw, sending him spinning and tumbling over Thomas. Much of the crew burst into laughter, at least until the Captain’s voice rose above the din.
“What is the meaning of this?” Captain Mathews carved his way through the crowd, which spread before him like the Red Sea before Moses.
“He attacked me,” Tobias spat, pointing an accusing finger at Thomas, who was pushing himself to his feet.
Captain Matthews turned a sharp gaze on Thomas. “What reason have you for treating the First Mate so? A man who has faithfully served this ship far longer than yourself?” When his questions were met with silence, the Captain added, “Well?”
Thomas wiped the blood off of his lip and stood, saluting first to the Captain before he answered his question. “He was inciting the crew to deliver some hardship onto Mr. Johnson.”
William snapped his head around so fast that he felt a sharp pang, and winced from it. He attacked Tobias in my defense? Why?
“Only because he is cursed, sir,” Tobias interjected. “Cursed by the ghost of his father. I tell you, that is the reason we have seen not a single whale these whole eight months. That is the reason our ship was nearly torn apart twice in that time. He is cursed. I asked him more than once to leave and—“
“Determining who works upon this ship is not in your office,” the Captain retorted, his chest proudly puffed. “I hired Mr. Johnson to serve as cooper aboard this ship and his dismissal may only be garnered by my own hand, not yours. I charge you to return to your cabin and recover there. The Second Mate will take the helm. Hold our course northwest. You both,” he glared at Thomas and William, “Will come to my cabin so we can sort this out. Everyone back to work!”