December 1, 1805
Any old port in a storm. That’s what I’m thinking as I carefully weave my little boat through the ships in the crowded harbor. I’ve seen many ports and I’ve weathered many storms and good old Boston Harbor is looking right good to me at this moment. Hmmm . . . be wary, though, girl. There’s three British warships lying over there at Long Wharf. Got to steer clear of them, for sure, as the men on board could have heard of the price that’s on my poor head and might be of a mind to try to collect it. My head, that is . . . Imagine that . . . a reward of two hundred and fifty pounds, and all for the body of one insignificant girl— a full Royal Navy captain’s pay for a year, and wouldn’t some lucky sailor like to nab that?
As I clear the end of Long Wharf, I pull my cap further down over my face and sail on. Don’t mind me, Sirs. Just a simple fisher lass heading home, nothing more.
Now I start working my way over to the land. I’m remembering that there’s an open bit of gravelly beach between Howard’s and Codman’s wharves, and that is where I’m of a mind to land. The wind is fair and my sail is drawing well and I’m cutting neatly through boats and ships that are anchored out. I pull in a bit closer and look over at the warships. They could see me from where they lay, if they cared to look. But who cares about some fishmonger’s dutiful daughter out plying her family’s trade? That’s what I’m thinking. Or hoping. But, oh Sirs— you, my fellow countrymen and fellow sailors— if only you knew what has happened at Trafalgar, you would not be sitting so peacefully here. It’s plain they haven’t gotten the word yet.
Codman’s Wharf passes on my port side and I throw the tiller over and bring the sail in close-hauled. When I hear and feel the scrape of the bottom on my keel, I loose the sail and the Morning Star slips her nose up elegantly onto the beach. Pretty neat sailing, old girl, I’m thinking, patting her gunwale affectionately. I know it’s been a long trip for the both of us, from Trafalgar to here, that’s for sure, and now you just rest.
For a moment I sit there in wonder at being back in Boston again, then I go forward and loosen the halyard, letting the sail and its booms collapse to the deck. I’m about to gather it in and wrap it up, when there’s a noise behind me and I spin around in alarm, my shiv out of my vest and in my hand. By God, they’re not going to take me without—
But it is nothing but a boy. A very ragged and dirty boy, to be sure, but just a boy. He is the very picture of a wharf rat, a breed with which I am very familiar, having once been one myself, back when I lived under London’s Blackfriars Bridge as a member in good standing of the Rooster Charlie Gang of Naked Orphans. Blackfriars Bridge was real close to the docks on the Thames, so, yes, I know this kind of boy quite well.
“Need some help, Missy?” he says with hope in his voice. It’s plain from the ribs sticking out under his too-short shirt that he hasn’t eaten in a while and he looks real willin’ to earn a penny. Well, I can’t argue with that, as I’m all for youthful spunk and enterprise. I slide my knife back in my vest.
“Well, maybe. Help me stow the sail.”
He leaps on board to help me wrap the sail around the boom, and we lash it down tight with the mainsheet and secure it to its stay post.
“There, Missy, tight as a drum. Anything else? Polish your brass, shine up your brightwork, varnish your oars?”
This one is younger than me— maybe thirteen, fourteen. His hair is held back with a piece of old twine and I can see both his knees through the rips in the trousers that end raggedly at his calves. He is, of course, barefoot.
“You can see, young Master Wharf Rat, that the Morning Star has neither brass work nor brightwork, nor do her oars need varnishing,” I say severely, in my best Naval Officer voice, “but you may, if you wish to earn a penny, watch over her till I return, which might be today, or might be tomorrow. If you know a place where she can be moored . . .”
“Oh, yes, Missy. See that pier over by the market? I’ll tie it up there. So many fishing boats go in and out of there that they’ll never notice us.”
“All right,” I say. I dig in the purse that hangs by my side and pull out a penny and flip it to him. “Go spend this on something to eat first and then tend to moving her. And mark me— This is the Morning Star and she is a her, not an it. Do you get that?”
“You can do it by yourself?”
“Oh, yes, Missy, I’m a thoroughgoing seaman! I’ll get her anywhere you need her.”
I give a quick snort. “Very well, Seaman . . . What is your name, boy?”
“Tanner, Missy. Jim Tanner.”
Copyright © 2006 by L. A. Meyer
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