TITLE: The Yankees--The Voyage Around Cape Horn
GENRE: Historical Fiction
April first through fifth, 1872
He was a sailor bold and true,
To my aye storm a-long!
A good old skipper to his crew;
Aye, aye, aye, Mister Storm a-long.
Traditional Halyard Chantey
Captain Isaac Griffin, master of the ship, Providence, watched his shadow precede him in the mid afternoon sunlight. His mind instinctively knew the direction and strength of the wind upon his face and the direction his shadow stretched, east by east north east, on the pavement. As he approached the tetra style portico of the Christison home, he noted his shade stretched longer than the columns of the Christison home stood high. Griffin was born in Newport, Rhode Island and thus was a New Englander, a Yankee. Had Griffin been a visitor from anywhere in the country, had he been born anywhere but Newport, the Beacon Hill home, the street, and its neighborhood might have impressed him. Home for only a week, he had been summoned by messenger to meet his partner, employer, and friend William Christison Senior, Kicking Billy. It was their first meeting in nearly two years.
Perhaps it's the winters in New England, salt cod, or just the extreme difficulty of scratching out a living here that does it, but a Yankee's sense of vision tends toward seeing the truth in its naked glory and speaking about it in blunt words. Griffin knew the Christison home was a sarcophagus, the symbol of a family's pride. The foundation for this home was money obtained from the triangular trade, cursed money from traffic in human flesh. Griffin knew the foundation was crumbling. Griffin was not superstitious, he had no prophetic abilities beyond reading a sky for the weather to come, but sensed this visit would change his life.
Griffin saw how the trees lining the street had just started to bud, their leaves awaiting warmth and sunlight to bloom. He saw tiny snow birds, juncos, still flitting beneath them. Furnace smoke drifted past him and brought the smell of rotten eggs, sulfur, to his nose. This sent him back in time by four months to Providence bound for San Francisco, then two weeks at sea from loading coal in the rain in Newcastle, Australia.
The coal had been packed tightly in his ship's hold leaving her to ride low in the water with little freeboard. Griffin remembered an anxious ship's carpenter and boatswain reporting the smell of sulfur, of smoldering coal. These men took their captain near the foremast so he too could feel the heat beneath the deck. He did on hands in knees carefully tracing the heat's boundaries on the wooden deck. He nodded to Chips and said, "Thanks." He then spoke to the mate, "Mr. Martin, heave her to."
The news spread quickly throughout the ship. Men were afraid for their lives, afraid of an explosion and fire at sea in a wooden ship.
Griffin, the first mate, Joshua Martin, and the carpenter carefully entered the hold through the lazarette. They were careful to avoid provoking an explosion. Griffin had to find the smoldering coal and jettison it overboard. A fire enclosed in a cargo hold can not be fought with water. The burning coal had to be found and jettisoned overboard.
The three men crawled nearly seventy five feet forward on their stomachs over the top of the coal in the dark and feeling for hot spots with their hands. They had barely a foot clearance between the coal and the deck over their heads. The cargo hold was hot, filled with smoke and as dirty as any mine anywhere in the bowels of the earth. If there was one hot spot, could there be others? They were nearly gagging, struggling to breath. Lanterns were too dangerous to use. The carpenter found the smoldering coal. Griffin ordered the main cargo hatch opened and began to dig to the smoldering coal with a shovel. A line was formed to pass the coal overboard. The spark may have come from a shovel or simply from the heat of the coal feeding on fresh oxygen. There was a brief, intense explosion from the methane. Griffin's right hand was burned badly, its top scared, its fingers burned where they were not protected by the shovel's handle. He screamed from the intense pain and would forever claim he had seen a glimpse of hell. His body went into shock. The carpenter carried him out of the hold through the cargo hatch and to the after cabin. He writhed from pain. The carpenter and his steward immersed the burnt hand in Griffin's own washbasin and held it there to douse the fire burning in his hand.
Griffin fought off unconsciousness and directed he be given twenty drops of laudanum mixed with red wine. This was the treatment recommended in his shipmaster's medical guide. He directed a poultice of chamomile flower be applied to his hand. When the laudanum dulled the pain he returned on deck and oversaw the removal of the smoldering coal. His bandaged hand stood out in contrast to his coal covered clothes and face. He wanted the crew to see him and to know he had not deserted them. When the crisis was over Griffin said, "She'll float now."
The odor from the neighborhood furnace was harmless enough; a source of domesticated heat, but it had triggered the memory of the fire. It would be a permanent memory which would haunt him until death freed him from it.
Griffin still could not accept the damage to his hand. He reached for the brass knocker on the Christison door with his burned hand which was covered by a black leather glove. He saw his fingers touch the brass but felt nothing, no warmth, no cold, not even the smoothness of the polished brass. He attempted to close his fingers and saw them close around the brass clapper. The first sense of pain came from the scarred flesh on the top of the hands and covering his fingers. It was inelastic and stretched only so far. This pain was uncomfortable. When he pressed his fingers to close more, the pain shrieked from the damaged tendons and injured nerve endings causing him to strain to keep from wincing. The brass lion's head remain unmoved.