Of the gladest moments in in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands.
-- Richard Francis Burton, 1856
Beacons Harbor’s tiny port was usually busiest in the early mornings when the fishing folk set out, and at sundown, when they returned with the day’s catch. This day however, the jetty was still bustling with activity despite it being nearly noon. Workers scurried along in the shadow of the Argent Arrow, scrambling to load the last of the supplies in time for its departure.
Stiles and Scott were on the edge of this bustle, hastily but ineffectively trying to unload their luggage under the weight of the coachman’s impatient glare.
“Dash it, Stiles! What in the heavens do you have in here,” Scott swore as he heaved a compact wooden chest into his arms, “A pile of bricks?”
“Your deductive skills never fail to impress me, my friend,” Stiles answered while he struggled to extract his bulging canvas bag from the narrow carriage doors. “As always, you are perfectly and outstandingly wrong. It must be a new record.”
“Well then, what is it?” Scott enquired gamely. He knew from years of previous experience that rebuttal would futile.
“That,” Stiles pronounced with grandeur, having finally emerged victorious in his fearsome battle against the carriage doors, “Is my chest of treasures. Books, journals and maps for the self-made explorer.”
“Really? A library?” Scott’s face was a picture of perfect confusion. “You want to take this all the way to Africa?”
“Why, yes, of course. It’s not a box of tea; I’m not going to throw it overboard.” Stiles frowned at the look of disapproval on his friend’s face and became at once defensive. “They’re important! I can’t just leave them here. What if I need to refer to them?”
“Fine,” Scott sighed, “I won’t stop you, but I can promise you you’ll regret it.”
“Wait, are you sailors not supposed to be superstitious and careful about what you say? Because that sounded singularly inauspicious to me.”
Scott merely glared at him in a manner that eloquently conveyed the message Shut up, Stiles.
“And isn’t it bad luck to sail on a Friday? Come one, even I know this one,” Stiles continued, because some things just had to be said. Truthfully, he knew a lot more than that one, but Scott knew him well enough to leave before he could inadvertently break any more taboos.
Less than two hours later, Stiles was watching Beacons Harbor fade into the distance from atop the Argent Arrow. Scott had vanished off to perform his duties, which could be anything from greasing the riggings to waxing down the cargo hold. The details didn’t matter, because as far as Stiles was aware, the duties of an ordinary seaman consisted largely of menial labor.
His dad hadn’t shown up in the end. Which was for the best, since he probably had more important things to attend to as the sheriff.
And he had made his stance perfectly clear two nights ago, when he told Stiles to get out of town. I want you to go. Those were the exact words. So clear and unequivocal they were more or less a direct order.
So off I go, Stiles thought as the last glimpse of Beacons Harbor disappeared around the bend.
He stretched and turned around, leaning heavily against the wooden beam. It’s the beginning of April and the Californian sky was wide and blue above him. The waters were much smoother and darker away from the bay, though there were patches that seem to glitter under the sunlight. The wind was mild and the ship sailed so gently along the ebb and flow could barely be felt.
The Argent Arrow was a medium-sized merchantman, but it’s by far the largest vessel he had ever been on. Full-rigged ships stopped coming to Beacons harbor years ago. He used to go up to Hale cliff to watch them pass from afar, but even then, he rarely saw any. He couldn’t tell how deep the ship was from deck to keel, but the main mast alone seemed to reach a hundred feet in height. The Argents were established tobacco merchants so it came as no surprise that the Argent Arrow was well-appointed and well-maintained. She should be able to complete the voyage to Los Angeles in less than four days, perhaps in just three, if weather permits.
But getting to Los Angeles was only the first step. Stiles had a much longer journey ahead of him.
Next would be the South Pacific railroad, which would take him across the continent to New Orleans. Once there, he would have to find Mr. Finstock and, if all went well, he would be part of the Louisiana Cotton Merchants Association’s first expedition to Africa. He had heard that the new steamships were now able to get across the Atlantic in less than three weeks, but if they sailed it would probably take up to eight. And in both cases, there would always be the possibility that they wouldn’t arrive at all.
The passage was sure to be arduous, but when was there ever adventure without hardship? Each step of the way would only take him closer to his dreams. And simply the thought of stepping upon that exotic continent excited him beyond measure. He felt like Henry Morton Stanley, off to find David Livingstone among the treacherous jungles with nothing more than a letter of instruction and a positive attitude.
Of course, Finstock had emphasized that they were planning for Freetown, not Zanzibar. But to someone who had spent all his life in a small fishing town of the Californian coast, Africa was Africa. His first concern was to get there.
His dad was right. He had been suffocating in Beacons Harbor, living but not alive. He needed to look forwards and outwards. He needed to see a larger world, to feel it and be a part of it. A world that wasn’t just held in the palms of his hand, among the pages of books. A world that was without borders, infinite and free, so large that it could contain him and all his curiosities and anxieties and idiosyncrasies.
It was simply unfortunate that the first step towards achieving this was to leave his old world behind.
It was deep into the night when they were awoken by the first roar of cannon fire. The entire ship shuddered so violently that Stiles almost toppled out of his bunk. Before anyone could respond, the second round of guns started almost immediately.
Stiles was still struggling to untangle his legs from the blankets when all the other occupants of their tiny cabin had fled. By the time Scott managed to physically drag him out into the narrow corridor, it was already packed full of people in various stages of panic.
The air was filled with agitated chatter, but there was really only one question being asked. Who was attacking them? Various theories were being thrown around and rejected. Surely it couldn’t be pirates? This was California, not the Caribbean. Perhaps it was the Navy? But they couldn’t possibly open fire on an unarmed merchant ship.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have the leisure to solve this perplexing mystery. The gunfire had finally ceased, but the increasingly ominous groaning emitting from the hold and the sharp smell of gunpowder and scorched wood became much more imminent concerns.
“We have to get to the lifeboats!” Scott shouted at him over the mob that had forced them apart, “They’ve blown a hole in the hull! The ship is going to sink!”
No. That was Stiles’ one immediate reaction. He didn’t even have time to think, he simply turned around and started pawing his way back to their cabin.
Scott had promised he’d regret it, but he didn’t realize just how quickly. It was such a bad idea to bring his books. He could buy new ones if he needed them, or borrow them, or read them off the shelf. But there was no way to replace the ones that he had. The ones that used to belong to his mother.
He reached the cabin and though he could barely see anything in the dark, he knocked into his book chest soon enough. He couldn’t take everything. He had to choose. But there was no light and no time and what sort of a dim-witted blithering idiot would try to save a couple of books when his ship was about to go under?
Stiles acted on instinct, digging through the chest roughly until his fingers closed around a leather-bound volume. It fitted into the oilskin pouch he kept his money in, but just barely. He had to abandon the roll of greenbacks in order to make room.
The corridor outside was quiet now, all the other passengers having fled onto the deck. It an odd moment of calm, he remembered the life-preservers stored on the overhead racks. Groping around blindly until he found the bulky device, he fumbled it on as he ran for the deck, making sure to tuck the oilskin pouch tightly against his chest.
The heat and smoke hit him before he could even emerge from the hatch, making his eyes water and throat clench painfully in protest. He forced himself forward only to be confronted by a forest of flames. The magnificent spread of sails had been set ablaze sometime during the attack and was burning fiercely against the pitch-black sky. There was little else to be seen through the dense smoke except for the fiery columns that used to be the masts.
Stiles stumbled his way to the beam, but there were no other signs of life left on deck. The lifeboats had all been launched. He could see nothing in the waters except for agitated waves and flickering, broken reflections of the burning ship. The other survivors must have rowed out into the darkness beyond. No one cared if some got left behind in a panic.
The night was dark as coal and there was nothing to be seen of their mysterious assailant. The Argent Arrow had already sunk so low that its deck was no more than 12 feet from the waterline. Stiles briefly considered holding out for a miracle, but there was a distressing crackle and the mizzen mast came crashing down mere steps from where he stood. Seized by panic, he flung himself overboard before the hungry flames could lick their way down the beam.
He hit the waters painfully and ungracefully. The initial contact was so sharp and brutal it felt as if he had hit solid ground. Bitter salt water rushed instantly into his mouth and lungs as he plunged into the water. It was pure agony for a terrible heartbeat before the life-preserver popped him back up to the surface.
It took him a few moments of aggravated choking and hapless floundering before he regained enough senses to weakly propel himself away from the burning carcass of the Argent Arrow. He let himself drift until the air was once again cool and fresh and the Argent Arrow was just a bright vision in the distance.
It was only then when he was struck by the fearful realization that he was alone. Totally alone.
So deep was the night that he could see nothing apart from the hellish glow of the Argent Arrow and a few dim stars, high up above. There was almost no difference in the view behind his lids and before. All was silent apart from the hauntingly rhythmic sound of waves.
He could feel the panic bubbling up from the pits of his gut and it took all his willpower to keep it from spilling over. He had to go back towards the ship. It was his only guidance in the darkness, his only chance against losing himself to this dreadful oblivion. He kicked his legs and paddled with his arms, but he could get no closer as the tides were pushing inexorably against him. His limbs were getting heavier by the minute and soon he had lost all feeling in them.
He was awoken the next day by the harsh heat of the mid-morning sun. The water was grey and calm, with small ripples pebbling the surface. The horizon was unbroken on all sides; there was absolutely nothing to be seen. He was truly and utterly lost.
There was no panic left in him now, only a sort of harrowing, bone-deep despair. He allowed himself to drift mindlessly while trying to ignore the overwhelming thirst. His face was burning from the sun’s rays so he lifted his arms up to protect it, but let them sink into the water again when he found that the soggy sleeves smothered him. Every moment was torture, but all he could do was to endure.
Time passed. It could have been minutes, or hours, or eternities. He had no energy left to care. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, blacking out for unknown periods before he was jerked awake once again by the acrid taste of seawater.
Stiles was barely on the edge of consciousness when he suddenly perceived the sounds of splashing. The splashing of oars. He opened his eyes and turned his head towards the sound. His vision was blurred from fatigue so all he saw at first were vague, uncertain colors. Then, as the waves dipped and rose, the world came into focus. He saw a small rowboat slicing its way towards him, slowly and wondrously, as if in a dream.
The rower was silhouetted against the sun but Stiles would readily believe it to be his guardian angel. He wanted to wave his hands, do something to gain notice, but he found that he couldn’t move. He could only wait, while hoping with every fiber of his being that salvation would not pass him by.
It did not.
As the sound of oars grew nearer and nearer, the feeling of sheer relief was rapidly draining him of all remaining energy. He thought he heard the sound of a man calling out to him, in a voice that was terse and gruff, but not discomforting. He thought he felt strong arms around him, pulling him out of the water. He thought he saw a pair of vexed and stormy eyes, set under heavy brows.
He thought he did, but he couldn’t be sure, because an unrelenting blankness was rising up all around him. And he gave himself up to it the moment he was out of the water.