"North" by Joseph Fick

Chapter 28 Massachusetts…1885 p350~359

Dunn signaled for two beers. “What’d ya do during the
war?” Dunn asked, he could always tell a veteran when
he saw one, almost all former military people had a
certain way about them regardless of what side they
fought on, plus the fact that Hollister only had one good
eye indicated he had probably seen action.
Hollister shrugged his shoulders, “I served under Lee,
Army of Virginia, infantry captain, how bout you?”
Dunn nodded, “I was a Sailing Master in the Federal
Navy,” he said chewing on a handful of peanuts.
“Where’d ya lose your eye?”
“Gettysburg,” said Hollister, the tips of his fingers
brushing the left side of his face, an unconscious gesture,
performed out of habit when some inquired about his
missing eye.
“Pickett’s charge?” asked Dunn.
Hollister nodded, “What a waste that was. Far too
many men cut down in their prime.” The newspaperman
sighed, “The Reaper got his quota that day, plus some.
Where were you?”
Dunn gave him a sad grin and handed Hollister a cigar,
after lighting his. “First I was a Master’s mate assigned
to Grant’s staff at Vicksburg.”
“A Navy man with Grant?” asked Hollister.
Dunn nodded, “I worked the river when I was a kid
they needed help moving troops and getting intelligence
in the area.”
“I imagine that kept you busy.”
“Don’t you know it brother! You “Johnny Rebs” were
tough customers, I’ll tell ya that.”
Hollister smiled. “We gave “Billy Yank” a problem or
two. What about after that?”
Dunn took a drink of beer and wiped the foam from his
mouth, “Well, I didn’t get killed and got promoted to
Sailing Master, after some leave I was assigned to the
U.S.S. TECUMSEH.”
Hollister thought for a minute, “Ironclad, right? Sunk
at Mobile Bay?”
“The same, I was one of three survivors, well two really,
the helmsman died in the water.”
Hollister shook his head, “Too many good men and boys
gone in that war, too many.” Dunn agreed and they
toasted to missing friends.
“Was ya a writer afore the war?” asked Dunn blowing
out some cigar smoke.
“Yeah, I was working in Richmond and after Fort
Sumpter, well that martial spirit arose in my breast and
I felt the need to defend Virginia, you know what I
mean?”
“Yeah, I reckon I do. Can’t really say I felt any different
Jack. Guess it was the same for both sides.”
“What’d you do after Mobile Bay?” asked Hollister.
“Well,” said Dunn, “I was medically discharged. Was up
in a hospital in New Hampshire, fell for a nurse there,
but…well, that didn’t quite work out.”
“Same thing happened to me,” said Hollister touching
his eye.
“So with no place in particular to go, I headed up to
Canada, Greenland thereabouts, lived with the Inuit for
two years.”
“Inuit?” asked Hollister.
“Eskimos,” said Dunn. “After doing some trapping and
hunting, I just kinda fell in with ‘em.”
“Isaac, do you really think you guys can pull this off, I
mean really do it?”
Dunn shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe, who knows? I
think we got a better chance than most. We’ve got plenty
of everything.”
“Except time,” commented the reporter.
“Don’t worry Jack, we got time. We ain’t hunting. It’s a
straight shot up there and back, we’ll be outta there
afore you know it.”
They were both silent, their eyes resting on the table,
empty shot glasses and mugs half filled with beer, each
man lost in thoughts of a common past they shared, of a
common future that was uncertain. Hollister brushed the
table with his fingertips, making pictures with the
condensation.
“Heard you were on the SPIDER, Isaac,” said Hollister
hoping that the topic wasn’t one that was too sensitive to
bring up around Dunn.
Dunn nodded his head, “Yeah, Jack, me and Aesop. We
both got outta that and we didn’t have 1/4 of what the
SHY LADY is carrying. Trust me the ship is coming back
and so are you.”
Hollister nodded, hoping his new friend was right. It
didn’t take a lot of imagination to know that the arctic
was a hard and unpleasant place to die and Hollister as
a writer had a good imagination, a very good imagination
indeed.
The dinner was good and simple. Chicken, tomato soup,
corn and a rough Spanish red wine that Mason liked,
regardless of what others thought about poultry and
wine selection and after soaking up the meat juices on
his plate with a slice of buttered bread, Mason sat back
in his chair, content.
“Wonderful dinner my dear, please give my
compliments to Mrs. Wilson,” said Mason, referring to
their cook.
Mai-Ling smiled as she poured the coffee, “I thought a
simple meal best. You don’t sleep well if you have a heavy
meal before you leave.”
“Really?” said Mason.
“Yes love, you toss and turn all night.”
“Well,” he said taking a sip of coffee, “we should sleep
well enough tonight.”
Mai-Ling sat down and settled herself in her chair.
“Jon, you are going to retire after this one, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m retiring after this one.”
“Jon,” she said, “you haven’t told me much about this
next…
voyage and I’ve made a point of not asking you about it,
but…”
Mason smiled, “But now you want to ask questions.”
Mai-Ling sighed, “I’m sorry Jon, I’m concerned that’s
all. I know you know what you’re doing and everyone
says you’re one of the best sailing masters on the
waterfront, but…you aren’t whaling up north, not this
time. I know.”
He nodded his head, “You’re right honey. We aren’t
whaling on this trip. I can’t tell you exactly what we’re
doing but everything is gonna be alright, we’ll be back in
a few months.”
The Chinese woman nodded her head, “I trust you Jon,
just be careful, please. A child needs a father and I need
you.”
He smiled, “I need you to my love, don’t worry, I’m
coming back.”
“That’s good enough for me,” she said looking, looking
out the window at the night sky.
“Jon, I’ve always wondered, the ocean is so…so big,
don’t you
…well I know this is going to sound foolish, but don’t you
ever get lost?”
Mason laughed, “Come on put on your shawl and I’ll
show you how we find our way at sea, or at least one of
the ways.” They walked out onto the porch that
surrounded their home, the change in temperature was
noticeable, the air was still frosty and Mai-Ling pulled
her wrap tighter to keep in the warmth. Mason pointed
to the stars twinkling above.
“Alright,” said the master of the SHY LADY pointing,
“do you see those four stars, the ones that look like a
backwards “L”?”
Mai-Ling looked. “Yes, yes I see them.”
“Alright, now do you see the two stars below the
backwards “L”?”
“Yes, Jon,” she said, “it looks like a cooking pan!”
Mason smiled. “We call that the Big Dipper,
sweetheart.”
“The Big Dipper,” she repeated.
“Now,” he said pointing across the sky. “you’ll see a
bright star that forms the corner of another “L”, this one
is upside down, do you see it?”
“Yes, Jon and the two stars above it, it looks like
a…Little Dipper, is that correct?”
“That’s right,” he said with encouragement. “That
bright star is what we call the North Star or Polaris.
That tells us where north is.”
“I see,” she said with wonder.
“To the right of the Little Dipper, you’ll see five more
stars, almost like a “W”, that’s the constellation
Cassiopeia.”
“And you can find your way all over the world like
this?”
Mason shook his head, “Only in the northern
hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere we would look
for the Southern Cross.”
Mai-Ling looked up at the man she shared her life with,
the father of her unborn child, her protector. “Could I be
your navigator Captain Mason?”
He kissed her forehead, “You already are.”
Mai-Ling held onto him tight, her face pressed against
his chest. “Come home Jon,” she said softly. “Just come
home.”
Ed was tired, the day had been a long one, not that he
minded so much. He liked his work and there really was
no other place he’d rather be. The SHY LADY was his
home. Pulling up a stool, he sat down near his galley
stove and lit up his pipe. He liked the quiet of the
evening and in the night his place of work was his
sanctuary. He took a good long drag off his pipe and
savored the smoke. It’s bowl was filled with a dark
Turkish tobacco that he liked. Whenever they were in
New Bedford, the old cook always made sure he was well
stocked. He had little in the way of material possessions
but his tobacco was the one thing he never scrimped on.
There was a knock on the galley door which opened
soon after. The cook turned to see one of the new
crewmen enter, a man by the name of Oaks.
“Hey Ed, I saw your light, is it ok if’n I sit here and
smoke with ya’s?”
The Cook gestured toward a box across from him, “Naw,
I don’t mind, be my guest.”
Oaks took a seat, pulled out his tobacco pouch and
after filling his pipe, borrowed a light from the cook and
lit it up.
“You ain’t going ashore Ed?”
The older man shook his head, “Nope.”
“How come?” asked Oaks.
Ed shrugged his shoulders. “Ain’t nothing to see. I
already seen New Bedford.”
“No one ya wanna say goodbye to?”
Ed shook his head again, “Nope.”
“Old man,” asked Oaks, “how long you been at sea?”
The cook shrugged, “I don’t know, less than some,
longer than others I reckon.”
The younger man laughed, “Ed, you just don’t know
when to be quiet, do ya?”
“Naw, I’m just naturally gabby.”
“Hey Ed, what’s it like up there?”
“Up where?” asked Ed.
“Up north?” said Oaks.
Ed cocked his head to the side and thought for a
moment. “Well, it’s colder than here.”
“Well, yeah, I figured that.”
“Yeah,” said Ed.
“What about them there Eskimo girls Ed?” asked Oaks.
“Are they like everybody says they are?”
Ed shrugged again, “They’s enough to keep ya warm at
night.”
“They pretty, them Eskimo girls?”
“Sometimes they is and sometimes they ain’t, but
they’re all nice enough. Just treat ‘em decent an’ they’ll
do the same for you.”
“Thanks Ed that’s good advice,” said Oaks.
“Well, I guess, I dunno, I just figured it was common
sense is all.”
They talked for another half hour before Oaks stood up
and stretched. “Well, Ed, I think I’m gonna turn in, I’ll
see ya in the morning.”
“Ok Jasper,” said the cook using Oaks first name, “I’ll
see ya in the morning.”
After Oaks left, Ed returned to his own private
thoughts, a past that few people knew about. Ed had
been married once, long ago. In his sea chest there was
an old tin type of his wife, he must have looked at the
picture over a thousand times, trying to imagine what
their life might have been like…should have been like.
Her likeness in the photo never aged, it never changed. It
was the woman he married, fresh and happy. He was the
one who became old. He had been a content and happy
man with a partnership in a small general store. His
happiness lasted only eighteen months, his world
crashing down around him when he lost both his wife
and their newborn infant in childbirth. His life was over,
as if he had died with them. He sold out his share of the
business and began to drift down that familiar road of
self destruction many men have followed. He drank, he
wandered, slept with pigs in a sty, when it was available,
he didn’t care. He’d lost everything, his wife, their child,
his self respect, his will to live. He was killing himself
slowly but he didn’t care. Thoughts of suicide were
frequent until…he saw the tall masts and long yards of
seagoing ships, he knew that these ships might save his
life, they would be his salvation.
He signed on with a ship heading towards the orient,
dried out and started his life over again, that was over 35
years ago. He knew the SHY LADY was going to be his
last ship and he dreaded spending his remaining days
ashore in some cheap ass flophouse. It was not a future
he looked forward to at all, that’s for sure. Ed stood up
and tapped the ashes out of his pipe. Tomorrow was
going to be another busy day he might as well get some
sleep. Yes, the old cook thought, he’d certainly miss life
on the deck of a ship.

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