Adventures of a Lad at Sea
Chapter 1: First Sight
Rating: PG (Maybe just a strong G? Implied Child Abuse, but nothing actually seen).
Feedback: Yes, please!
She ran to the wharf, flutters of excitement growing inside with each call of the docking whistle. Sailors were already gathering thickly on the shore unloading cargo or greeting loved ones. She stood a few feet away on the tips of her toes, searching for one sailor in particular.
Nervously she fingered the ribbons in her dark pigtails. She pranced on her feet, dodging the quickly thinning crowd of families. There was a sunken feeling in the pit of her stomach. Did she confuse the days? Maybe there had been an accident. What a fool she would feel like if he never appeared!
'There!' She beamed as her eye caught the tall, slender form proudly walking toward her. His Captain's uniform was crisply pressed, accenting his muscular arms and shoulders, toned from years of hard work at sea. His cap was sitting straight, but unable to keep a few tufts of thinning salt-and-pepper hair from escaping. She abandoned her lookout post and ran, her arms stretched wide. "Father!"
The Captain reached out and grabbed the whirlwind of a little girl under her arms and swung her in the air. He made a few circles before cuddling her close to his chest.
"Elizabeth, my child!" Captain Stoddard kissed his little girl gently on the cheek before loosening his hold and settling her against his hip. The girl leaned back to look her Father in the eye. "You are a sight for sore eyes, Pretty Girl. Did you miss me?"
"Maybe a little." She answered, a sneaky sweet smile on her face. "It's hard to tell when afternoon tea is without your snores sounding from the den."
Try as he might, The Captain couldn't keep a straight face. "Why you Cheeky Monkey!" His daughter covered her mouth trying to stifle the stream of giggles. "My how you've sprouted since I've seen you last. Have you been a good girl while I've been away?"
"Of course I have, Father!" Elizabeth said. "Do you even have to ask?"
"Well how am I to know if you deserve your present or not?"
Elizabeth's eyes grew round as saucers. "A present for me?"
Captain Stoddard set the girl down on the ground and reached into his trouser pockets. He fished out thin brown package tied with string. "I found these when we stopped in the Orient. I hope you like them."
Elizabeth tore into the package and drew out a long blue ribbon. "Oh, Father, they're beautiful! Thank you!"
"You're welcome, Child. It's made of pure silk, from real Chinese silk worms. Something special to tie in your hair."
"It matches my Easter dress perfectly!" She wrapped her arms around her Father's legs as far as she could reach.
"Well, if you can bear to let go for just a moment, I have someone I want you to meet." Captain Stoddard said with a laugh. He turned slightly behind him, reaching his arm out in invitation. With cautious steps, a boy appeared.
Only looking a few years older than herself, he already stood to Captain Stoddard's chest. His clothes hung on his lanky frame, sleeves not quite covering his wrists and pants exposing his ankles. A mess of dark hair flopped on his forehead from under a worn cap a few sizes too big. At his side, he tightly gripped a small bag as if it contained all of his worldly possessions.
Captain Stoddard stood behind the boy, a hand on each shoulder. He leaned down slightly and spoke to the boy. "This is my daughter, Elizabeth. Remember, the one I was telling you about? Liz, may I present Benjamin Cartwright."
The boy nodded and bowed slightly. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth felt her stomach flip as her eyes met the boy's. Try as she might, she couldn't turn away from those richly dark eyes.
The Captain cleared his throat to bring her out of her trance. She gathered a handful of her skirt and curtseyed with a hint of a wobble. "How do you do?"
"Found him on another ship, didn't we, Lad?" Captain Stoddard said. "He's a little on the scrawny side, but I figured a few decent meals on land should keep him from washing overboard. Think there's something for a few hungry seamen at home?"
"Now that's a silly question." Elizabeth blurted out, her hands on her hips. "Mother has been working on your welcome home supper all afternoon."
"You're right, Child." The Captain said, "What ever was I thinking? Lead the way, Lassie."
"Come on, Benjamin!" Elizabeth grabbed the boy by the arm and started dragging him down the street. "Just wait 'til you try the carrots and onions. It's Mother's recipe, but she let me make it almost all myself!"
Captain Stoddard stared at his bold daughter for nearly full minute before shaking in head with a laugh and following at a much slower pace.
There is nothing in the world quite like the velvety texture of clams slow cooked in a broth of fresh cream with just a hint of spicy pepper. Captain Stoddard couldn't help but close his eyes in enjoyment as a potato chunk rolled over his tongue, melting in his mouth. Sure, there were rich and exotic foods to sample when he went to Port and Cookie did his best with the limited supplies on The Wanderer, but that only made him crave Meg's home cooked meals when he was away from the shores of New England all the more.
And his beloved Wife did not disappoint. Just as she did every time he returned home, she set out a feast that would have put any King's table to shame; Fresh bread, roasted root vegetables, roast pork, apple dressing and of course, his very favorite, clam chowder. If his nose was working properly, he detected the faintest hint of chocolate cake in the air, probably cooling in the window for dessert.
Captain Stoddard's new Cabin Boy seemed to share his sentiments. He couldn't hide his amusement as he watched Young Cartwright heartily enjoy his chowder, only pausing to politely answer a question from someone at the table. The small face disappeared behind the china bowl as it was lifted up to scrape the last morsels into his mouth. As he set the bowl back on the table, the Captain could see it took all of the boy's willpower not to lick it clean.
Ben noticed The Captain's gaze and froze. He sheepishly put his hands in his lap and looked up at the Captain in apology. Captain Stoddard just winked and quietly put another roll on the boy's plate.
Meg kept a close eye on the boy as well, scooping second and third helpings on his plate the moment she heard the scratch of silverware against dish. She would give him a quiet smile that didn't reach her eyes, visibly disturbed by the hollow cheeks and lanky limbs. Her hand would linger on his shoulder just long enough that Captain Stoddard worried she would scoop the boy up in her arms like a toddler.
Elizabeth however didn't seem to notice the silent conversation between her parents, only having eyes for their guest. She sat next to Ben at the table and scooted her chair almost on top of his. She would quickly take bites of dinner when her mother caught her, but was content to absently play with her food and watch him with calf-love eyes.
When Elizabeth finally finished enough of her dinner to please her parents, she had excitedly begged to show Ben the backyard and her new swing. The Captain almost refused, thinking Ben wouldn't want to play with a girl, and especially not a ten year old one. But the silent request for permission, excitement bubbling from his newest seaman changed his mind. He excused them both with a wave of his hand and an admonishment not to go too far.
Elizabeth bounded from her chair and out the door, Ben close on her heels.
It was there at the dinner table nearly an hour later that Captain Stoddard sat deep in thought. His pipe had long ago run out of tobacco but he still held it between his teeth absently. Two months had passed since he met up with that Slaver. Normally he steered clear of those wretched ships, but a feeling in his gut made him call the order to drop anchor and climb aboard.
He could still clearly see the small room, barely bigger than a closet near the Captain's berth, the small movement that caught his eye. The underweight boy that emerged caked in dirt and patches of dried blood. How he refused to meet anyone's eyes and stayed out of arms reach of the crew. He was still amazed that he was able to barter for him. At more than one point he was afraid he wouldn't have a ship by the end of the negotiations. Though, he had to admit, if he had the chance to do it again he wouldn't have thought twice. He was only sorry he couldn't do anything for the Poor Devils below deck.
The Captain knew very few details about the boy, most of which he discovered by accident. There was something about an older brother at home said with such admiration in his voice that spoke of a small case of hero worship. He heard something about his Mother's sugar cookies once, wistful with a hint of homesickness. He was bright with his letters and figures and would do anything asked of him, but he clearly enjoyed physical tasks that had him out in the fresh air. Captain Stoddard had told the boy he would get him back home to his Parents, he was sure they missed him. But Ben just shook his head firmly; he needed to at least pay off his debt to the Captain for his freedom first.
Over the course of dinner, a bright spark appeared in Ben's eyes that The Captain hadn't seen before. The boy who unknowingly boarded that Slaver almost a year earlier began to reappear as his posture loosened in his seat and his answers became longer than a few words. There were still moments of fear, flinching when someone moved too quickly, being overly polite in every situation, but he was confident those damn quirks would fade with time and the right amount of care. The Boy could use some Mothering, there was no denying that, but someone his age would never stand for an overt display of affection, especially one as prideful as Young Cartwright. No, this was one nut he was going to have to convince to crack, rather than force open.
The Captain stood and went to the window. In the yard his Elizabeth was firmly in her swing. She had somehow cajoled Young Cartwright into pushing her until the grin on his face matched her own. Giggling, she begged to go higher and higher until she was floating high enough to reach out and touch the sky. Ben stood behind her, whooping and hollering with each push as if he used every ounce of his being. He followed her path through the air, watching as the breeze caught the tails of her new ribbons to dance in delight.
A smile slowly crept onto the Captain's face as well. It seemed as if a young friendship had developed before his very eyes. If he knew Elizabeth was the key to decoding his new crewman, he would have headed home weeks ago.
There was a fine officer and a good man to be found somewhere in there. He just had to chip away at the marble until the masterpiece was revealed.