When I awoke, I was lying on a hard wooden floor. The room seemed to be swaying, and I thought I must still be drunk from the night before. But I had only drunk one glass of ale and just a few sips of stout; why did my head hurt so? And why was the sun so bright? I rolled over and saw there was no roof over my head; I was lying on the deck of a ship. The truth came rushing back—my drink had been drugged; I had been shanghaied. There were five or six other men lying on the deck as I was, and another man, a man I recognized right away as the man who had befriended me at the Hole-in-the-Wall, was kicking each sleeping soul awake.
“On your feet swabbies, your captain is coming to inspect you.”
I was still trying to make sense of it, but the long and short of it was, I was on a sailing ship, and I could not get off. The man in charge was now herding us like animals, making us stand straight for the captain’s approval.
When we were lined up, the captain came down to review us. Our captain was something to behold; tall and beefy, with a long black beard, and piercing blue eyes. His uniform was blue serge with red lining and trim, with gold piping on the lapel, and gold epaulets on the shoulders. He wore a visored cap that was similarly decked out. But even without the uniform, there would be no question who was in charge.
He walked once around us, slowly as if reading each man’s worth from what he saw, then said to our captor, “McDougal, this is the worst lot yet.”
“There is a lack of quality men available sir.” The big man was cowering before the captain; I took some joy in that.
“Yet quality men is what I requested, McDougal, able-bodied seamen. I hope you do not think you are the only man in New York upon whom I can call.
“No sir. If you will look on these men and tell me who you will keep, I will replace the others tomorrow.”
The captain walked around us again, then coming around the front he singled me out.
“Look at this one, McDougal, does this look like a sailor to you?”
“Sometimes them small ones are good on the ropes, Captain,” said McDougal.
“Good on the ropes, we’ll see. What is your name lad?” the captain said to me.
“Jonathan Pratt,” I said.
McDougal smacked the back of my head and said, “You’ll address your captain as sir.”
“Jonathan Pratt, sir,” I said.
“McDougal is your boy mocking me?”
McDougal smacked me again, “Stop mocking the captain and tell him your name.”
“My name is Jonathan Pratt, sir, and I mean no offense.”
The captain stood in front of me now, looking me square in the eye. “Are you saying that you do not know that you are addressing Captain Samuel Pratt?”
“No sir,” I said, “and I apologize for the coincidence, but my name is my name, sir.”
“From where do you hail, Jonathan Pratt?” he stood in front of me now, scrutinizing closely.
“From Salem, Massachusetts, sir.”
“And what does your family do in Salem?”
“They are farmers, sir.”
He continued to look closely at my face for a time then said slowly, “And might your father be named Aaron Pratt?”
“Yes, sir, he is.”
“Then allow me to introduce myself properly, Jonathan, I am your uncle, Samuel.”
Was the captain now mocking me? My father’s name is Aaron and, as I learned the day before my departure from the farm, he did have a brother Samuel, but Samuel went to sea when no older than I am, and was presumed by all to be dead. Was I to believe that same child had grown to be the captain of this ship?
“These men will do, McDougal. See the boson for your pay.” The captain said, then turned to me, “Walk with me to my cabin, Jonathan, we have much to talk about.”
The captain’s cabin was small but comfortable, outfitted all around with dark wood and decorated with exotic artifacts—statues and masks, weaponry from pagan races—no doubt accumulated on his voyages. He had me sit at a small table, and he sat down across from me.
“I sense that you still have doubts, Jonathan.”
“I am sure you are right, sir, but it still seems unlikely that you are my uncle.”
“Let me ask you this,” said the captain with an air of confidence, “did your father marry Susan Heywood as has he had intended?”
This sealed it; how else could he have known. “She was my mother, sir. She died when I was born.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Jonathan, Susan was a fine girl. And a boy should not grow up without a mother. Tell me, lad, did your father ever speak of me?”
“Only once, sir. He said you were sent to sea to save the farm. He thought you were long dead.”
The captain laughed heartily at this. “And yet I survived. Yes, they sold me into seven years bondage aboard a Salem merchantman to save the precious farm. How they must have lamented to think me dead. A year at sea would be the death of many boys, but I had a knack for sailing. I realized from the start that your common sailor is a stupid lout which is why a captain’s iron hand is required to move a ship. I knew that I was not stupid, and I used that year to learn every trade aboard the ship, from cook to navigator. How those men taunted me for trying to rise above my station, but by the end of that voyage I had become an officer, and those same men bloody well took orders from me. At the end of my seven years, though my master begged me to continue with them, I shipped out as first mate on another man’s ship. The following year, as a young man, not yet in his prime, I became captain of a schooner bound for China. I saved my money and invested wisely when the opportunity arose, and today I own four merchantmen of my own. Though I am wealthy enough to retire, I love the sea so much I still captain my favorite of the four, the Eastern Star, the ship we are on now. So no,” he laughed again, “I have not yet died at sea.”
“But still, you must hate them for sending you away,” I said.
“No, Jonathan, as I said, I was never stupid. I was the third of three sons; what was there for me. Even without saving the farm, my choices were few. I could have gone west as a freebooter or gone off to sea. That the choice was made for me matters little today.”
As interested as I was in the captain’s story, I was beginning to nod off and he couldn’t help but notice.
“Well Jonathan, I have a business to attend, for tomorrow at dawn we set sail for the South Pacific. I can see you need time to recover from Mr. McDougal’s mickey finn. It would please me if you slept in my cabin while I tend to the ship’s business, then joined me for dinner. I am anxious to hear your story.
I accepted the captain’s offer, lay down in his bunk and slept as soundly as I ever had.