– Chapter One –
Dock & Stock
The keel of the Undertow cut noiselessly through the silent and soft black water of the Atlantic Ocean. In the distance was the orange glow of Sandy Harbor, no bigger on the horizon than the captain’s thumbnail.
They’d be well into dawn before any man set eyes on New York Harbor, that was certain. The captain lowered his hand from the skyline and removed a meerschaum pipe from his overcoat. The glow of the match cast a soft light onto the captain’s worn face, his steeled eyes, a jagged scar extending from the bridge of his nose to the corner of his mouth.
A thin plume of smoke escaped the captain’s lips as he stood on deck, one hand on the wheel. A cutting shadow moved to the nest without so much as a footfall or a creaking of wood. The captain nodded, removed his hand from the wheel and crossed his arms.
“I’ve lost the moon,” the first mate said placing one hand on the wheel where the captain had been holding. The first mate—a plank of a man, sturdy as cut wood but just as thin had been by the captain’s side for six years, since he stowed away at the age of fifteen. He was not old enough to grow into his given name, Robert Louis Henderson. The crew called him Sweet Lou, the captain called him Mr. Henderson.
“You haven’t lost it, Mr. Henderson,” the captain said. “It’s lost you.”
The captain knocked loose the tobacco in his pipe against the heel of his boot. The pipe disappeared into his coat pocket.
“She will find you in a few hours,” the captain said. “Twenty degrees off the port bow. It’s a late moon, the kind that’s been around the world already.”
“Aye,” said Mr. Henderson.
The captain maneuvered the upcoming day in his mind. He hated New York, the smell of it, the overall slithery feeling it had in the harbor. The man waiting for them at the port, Vincent Samuels, was no exception–he could sell salt water back to the ocean at a profit. He was a king among rodents, slippery and smooth.
Just the thought of Samuels and the crawling stone skyline of New York City made the captain sharpen his bone-handled knife again.
There would be no shore leave this time for the crew and they knew it. This was a dock and stock. The faster they unloaded the crates of cinnamon, anise, cardamom, various salts, and what felt like miles of brightly colored silks and fabrics the faster they could make way again. This was the last of their runs to the orient for a while. There was serious money to be made for the fastest ships to run supplies to the prospectors in the new city of San Francisco.
In twenty or so days they’d be watching the sunrise over the candy-glass waters of the Caribbean. Forty hours of Caribbean shore leave, he had learned over the years, was better than any medicine New York City could offer.
As the thumb-size glow on the horizon continued to grow, the captain went over the provision list with Mr. Henderson. Double up on salted pork this time, he would tell him. Plenty of wine and ale for the way south, he told him, they’d get casks of rum in the islands for the cold trip around Cape Horn.
In a few hours he’d go to his quarters and shave his face clean, brush his coat and polish its buttons. The crew had been swabbing and painting for three days, men attached to long ropes like dangling bait putting a needle and thread to the billowed bodies of the Undertow’s sails.
One does not sail into New York City in anything less than their best. When the Undertow makes its way into port, citizens and urchins gasp. Their mouths stand agape of this pristine vessel-home again from places they’ll never see; places they’ve heard about in stories and legends. That’s it, they often whisper. That’s the Undertow, the best sailing clipper in all the seven seas. The Undertow can vanish on a soft wind, they say. The Undertow can sail a flat circle around a battalion of pirates and leave them spinning. Captain John Mallory could sail across the very skies if needed, they say.
And a smart captain like Mallory doesn’t set one polished boot on dry land like New York City without a broad smile, a tailored overcoat, and a freshly sharpened knife.