My sleep was fitful that night. I was so anxious for daylight and our departure that every creak of the ship’s timber and every unfamiliar noise on deck would awaken me. But they were just stray sounds and each time, disappointed that it was still dark, I would roll over and try to sleep. Then I was jolted awake by a sharp sound within the room as if the door had closed. I sat up in bed, sure that there was someone in the room with me.
“Who is there?” I said into the darkness. There was no reply, but as my eye adjusted to the darkness, I could see a shadow moving in front of me. I said again, “Who is there?”
“Are you Jonathan Pratt?” a whisper came from the dark.
“Who are you, what do you want?”
“Shhh. Be quiet now and come with me. I’m here to rescue you.”
“I’m here to rescue you. Your mate, Jack Horne sent me.”
Then I understood; it was Jack trying to take control of my life once more, and I would have none of it. “Tell Jack thank you, but I don’t need rescuing.”
“Come on. Look at you, boyo, you won’t last a week on this ship. Get up now, and let’s go.”
“I’ll have you know I am the Second Mate of the Eastern Star, and I don’t need to be rescued by you or Jack or anyone.”
“Yes, and I’m James K. Polk come for tea.” He grabbed my arm, “Now let’s go. It weren’t easy coming aboard this ship and I ain’t leaving it empty-handed.”
I knocked his hand away. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, he said you might give me trouble, so here’s some back.” From the darkness, his other hand swung a bludgeon down on my skull, and I was out again.
When I awoke, I was once again lying on a wooden floor. It was a dark room that smelled of urine and mildew; not at all like the Eastern Star. I sat up and tried to get my bearings. My head was throbbing. I reached up and felt a huge lump, still sore to the touch.
“Pratt, thank God you’re alive,” It was Jack. She came to my side, squatted down to peer into my eyes and feel my wounded skull.
“I didn’t tell him to hit you, Pratt, just bring you back. I was afraid you weren’t going to revive.”
“What is this Jack? Where am I?”
“You’re on land Pratt; you’re safe now.”
“My God,” I jumped to my feet, ‘is it morning?”
“The sun’s been up for an hour,” Jack said, “I’ll take you for some breakfast.”
I ran for the door, then out into a hallway no brighter than the room had been. I had to maneuver around sleeping bodies lying randomly around the hall, then down a stairway also strewn with sleepers. I ran down another flight of stairs and through another crowded hallway until I finally found a door to the outside.
I had no idea where I was or where I would find the ship, but I had to make it back. If there was any chance that they had not already set sail, I had to make sure I was on board when they did. I ran towards the rising sun, knowing that if I went far enough, I would eventually hit water. When I reached the piers, I looked for landmarks I may have seen from the ship. I saw a flag pole that looked familiar, but no ships docked there. An old man was stowing some gear in the shed, and I asked him if the Eastern Star was still in port. He turned and pointed out to sea. I looked and saw the Eastern Star, already halfway to the horizon. Frantic, I asked the man if it was possible for me to row out in a dingy and intercept the ship.
“Well,” he said slowly as if pondering my odds of catching the Eastern Star, “if you start rowing towards that ship now, by the time yer halfway there, she’ll be in dockin’ in Chiny.” He exploded into a derisive cackle, laughing at me far longer than I felt was warranted.
Completely discouraged, I sat down on the dock, leaning my back against a piling, and watched the Eastern Star heading out to sea. From my vantage, the progress of the ship was imperceptible as if she were stationary in the water. It seemed like the easiest thing in the world, just to row, or even swim out to that object in the water, but I knew the old man was right. It was like watching a clock; the stillness was an illusion. Though I couldn’t see the motion, I could not stop that ship any more than I could, I could prevent a clock’s hands from circling its face.
After a while, Jack came running up to me. “There you are, Pratt, I didn’t know where the hell you went. What’re you doing here on the dock?”
“Watching my only chance at happiness on this earth slowly sail away forever.”
“What, that ship?” Jack said, “Listen, Pratt, you’re no sailor. You may not believe it but I done you a great favor getting you off that ship.”
Then slowly and dispassionately I told Jack about my uncle, Captain Samuel Pratt, who had risen to his high position from the same wretched start as mine, and who had promised to be my protector, benefactor, and teacher on this voyage so that I might someday become a great captain myself.
“But now it is out of reach,” I said, “soon to disappear forever, beyond the horizon.”
Jack sat down next to me, and put an arm around my shoulder, “Then I apologize, Pratt, truly. But how could I know? I only wanted to rescue you, as you did in me in Watervliet. How could I possibly know I was wrong?”
“It’s alright, Jack, I hold no grudge. It is just another reminder of what I have known all along—there is no point in trying to improve my fortunes, the Lord has marked me as damned and in his wisdom has decided to begin the punishment before I even reach hell. You are just the agent, not the author of my misfortune.”
“C’mon, Pratt, buck up. Everyone has opportunities in New York; let’s grab ours and make some noise here.”
I heaved a great sight, “No, Jack, I’m not staying in this city. I’m going back north to Albany, and I am hoping that, if I’m not arrested there for theft and murder, the Lord will somehow signal me whether to go east or west. That is the extent of my future plans.”
“I can see how that might have some appeal,” Jack said, “but, ya know Pratt, even the simplest of plans will encounter impediments.”
“What do you mean?”
Jack scratched her neck, looked to the sky, closed her eyes as if searching for the right words. Then she said, “That fellow who rescued you—Slasher Dugan—has a policy of never doing nothing for free. In exchange for rescuing you, I had to promise that both of us would go to work for him, at least until the debt is paid off.”
“What’s his line of work?”
“He’s a criminal; he runs a band of thieves. He thinks we’re canal pirates and wants us to join.”
“He can’t make us steal,” I said, “Come with me Jack, we’ll get out of the wretched place.”
“It ain’t that easy,” she said, “Slasher Dugan is a Dead Rabbit.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Dead Rabbits is the gang that controls everything around here. If we try to leave, every eye on the street will be looking for us. We won’t get two blocks.”
Much of this did not make sense to me then, but when you are being beaten down by so many, it hardly matters who is throwing the blows.
“Well, there’s my sign from God.” I said, “I will stay here and be a thief until, in his infinite wisdom, he chooses to send me somewhere else.”
“We’ll get along.” She said.
I nodded slowly. “Tell me, Jack, does this fellow know you’re a girl?”
“Slasher Dugan is good at what he does,” Jack said, “and in the criminal world, he appears to be a man of great vision. But like most men, he has trouble seeing what is right in front of him. Slasher Dugan thinks I am a tough canal pirate from upstate. That I was anything but a boy would never cross his mind.”