Word Count: 2200
The thought of hopelessness was briefly replaced with a fleeting feeling of panic, and as he struggled to fill his lungs, he knew this breath would be his last.
The great, yawning expanse between his feet and the frail strand of solidity upon which both had been tenuously planted, and terra firma, had reduced his fellow passengers to tiny black dots. From this great height, they looked more like fleas or specks of dirt, with nothing at all to distinguish them as human beings. Worse still, their conveyance seemed no more than a child’s toy, poorly constructed and extremely fragile, ready to fall apart at the slightest provocation.
“Stupid,” he gasped. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” By nature, he was impulsive, foolhardy, and reckless, oft times charging headlong into places where angels feared to tread.
‘. . . he’s an adventurous lad, so full of life, he’s just bursting at the seams,’ his father had remarked on countless occasions. ‘A joy to behold, even if he IS responsible for my having all these white hairs . . . . ’
With an anguished cry, he squeezed his eyelids shut as tight as he possibly could, in a desperate bid to obliterate that dreadful panorama spread out below him. His stomach lurched, and although his eyes remained shut tight, he could still feel the world about him spinning faster and faster, like the top his father had given him a long time ago, on the occasion of his fifth birthday. He felt himself teetering as his the muscles in his hands and fingers began to relax.
A collective gasp rose from the people gathering below, drawn to the scene of danger and its potential for unspeakable tragedy like bees to a saucer full of sugar water. His body lurched, prompting his hands and fingers to tighten their grip on the narrow handholds.
“H-How?!” he whimpered softly, his words nearly lost in the thunder of his racing heart, and the blood pounding in his head and ears. “H-How in the world c-could I b-be so . . . so damned stupid?!”
. . . you don’t stop and think, son.
He could hear his father now, speaking just as clear, as if he were standing right here beside him.
That’s your trouble. You’re always rushing headlong into places, angels fear to tread. You’ve got to learn to stop and THINK first, BEFORE you rush in…
For what seemed to him a terrible eternity, he clung white knuckled for dear life, two thirds of the way upward toward his goal, his body completely paralyzed, his mind numb.
The high, thin wail of a young child, coming from a place high above him, rudely jolted him back to his senses. He slowly raised his head, and forced himself to open his eyes. The sight above froze the very marrow in his bones. The child he had so boldly . . . so foolishly and recklessly set out to rescue, had crawled out to the edge and now leaned dangerously far forward. He focused his gaze on the young boy, silently willing him with all the strength he had within him, to move back, well away from the edge. Instead, the child leaned over farther.
With heart in mouth, he immediately resumed his climb, barely aware of the movement within his limbs, propelling him steadily upward. He had to reach that child before the unthinkable happened. That thought, that goal dominated and consumed his mind and his thoughts to the exclusion of all else. The feather light touch of his fingertips against the very top triggered an explosive burst of adrenalin that sent him flying up what little remained of the climb, and over the top.
For a moment, he remained on his hands and knees, gasping for breath, his sweat soaked body trembling like a leaf.
He slowly raised his head and found himself staring into the pale, tear stained face of a boy, no more than three or four years old.
“I . . . I w-want my m-mama,” the boy whispered, his eyes filled with terror and despair.
“Pull yourself together, Cartwright,” he silently, sternly admonished himself. He, then, took a deep, ragged breath, and asked in as calm and steady a voice as he could muster, “What’s your name, boy?”
“P-Patrick,” the child replied warily.
He smiled. “Patrick, do you ever play horsey with your papa?”
Patrick returned his smile with a shy, tremulous one of his own. “Y-Yeah,” he replied, nodding his head. “Papa and me play horsey lots ‘n lots.”
“Good,” he murmured softly. “That’s very good, because you and I are going to play horsey now.”
Patrick favored him with a dubious glare. “We are?!”
“Yes . . . we are,” he affirmed, “and if you do exactly as I say, we’re going to find your mama waiting at the end of the ride. Would you like that?”
The boy solemnly nodded.
“What you’re going to do is get up on my back, put your arms around my neck, and hold on real tight, until I tell ya to let go,” he said. “Think you can do that?”
“Yes, Sir,” Patrick replied with confidence. “I KNOW I can, ‘cause I’m a real good horsey rider.”
“I kinda thought so,” he said. “You have the look of a real good horsey rider.”
Patrick beamed. “I do? Really?!”
“Yes, you do. Really,” he replied. “You ready?”
“I’m ready,” the boy replied.
He hoisted the child up onto his back, and with one last exhortation to ‘hold on tight,’ he slowly lowered himself down onto his hands and knees, and began to ease his way back over the edge.
It took nearly every ounce of the iron will and stubborn determination he possessed to relax his arms just enough to allow him to begin his descent. He tentatively extended one leg downward, his booted foot desperately seeking a secure hold. After a dreadful eternity of groping about in mid-air, his foot finally touched upon a secure place. He jammed his foot into the opening, and with heart in mouth, he tested it to determine whether or not it would bear his full weight and that of the frightened child clinging to his back for dear life. Relief, deep and profound, surged throughout the entire length, width, and breadth of his body, leaving him week kneed, and perilously dizzy.
“Get hold of yourself, Cartwright,” he angrily castigated himself once again. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to ease downward, moving one hand down to the next hold, then the other.
“M-Mister?” the boy queried, his voice shaking. “My arms hurt.”
“I need ya to hold on just a little bit longer,” he exhorted the boy. “Can you do that?”
“I . . . I think so,” the boy replied, his voice filled with uncertainty and doubt.
“You can do it, Patrick,” he declared stoutly, as he began to extend the other leg downward, “I KNOW you can, because you’re a good horsey rider. A REAL good horsey rider.”
“M-My arms hurt awful bad,” Patrick moaned softly.
“Another minute, Patrick . . . that’s all,” he continued to exhort and encourage, his voice filled with a calm, reassuring confidence he was very far from feeling. “Another minute. All ya have to do is hang on for just another minute . . . . ”
“You can do it,” he murmured softly, “just one more minute, Patrick . . . you can do it.” He repeated those words over and over and over, until they became as a kind of mantra, drawing his thoughts away from his trembling legs and the cramping muscles in his hands, fingers, and forearms . . . focusing them entirely on the boy.
A woman’s anguished cry, assailed his hears, the instant he stepped down once more on terra firma. He had vague awareness of a young woman, with flaming red hair, her face white as a sheet, snatching young Patrick from his arms . . . of a man not much older than the woman, his face pale, his eyes round and staring seizing his hand, and vigorously pumping his arm up and down, words of gratitude tumbling out of his mouth one, after the other, after the other . . . of a crowd of people . . . men, women, and children . . . pressing close, thumping him on the back, shaking his hand . . . .
Without warning, the faces began to blur and melt into a single fleshy mass. His knees buckled, and he felt himself falling. The last thing he remembered, before the blackness overcame him, was the voice of a man, a powerful man, one well used to issuing orders and having them obeyed, shouting for someone to “ . . . grab the boy and follow me.”
Before opening his eyes, he felt the softness of the down stuffed mattress beneath him. It had been a long time since he last slept in a real bed. For a moment, he was certain that he was dreaming . . . .
Suddenly, his eyes snapped wide open.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, lad… ”
He gasped, and upon turning his head, he found himself staring up into the stern visage of Captain Abel Stoddard.
“ . . . you gave us all quite a turn this afternoon,” the captain observed, not unkindly. “For a moment there, I thought sure I was going to have to send a man up to rescue you and the boy. You alright?”
He nodded, thoroughly chagrined as he felt the needle prickly rush of blood to his face. “I . . . I’m sorry, Sir,” he murmured, his voice filled with remorse. “It was a stupid, foolish thing I did this afternoon . . . . ”
“Aye,” the captain replied, “that it was . . . and I hope you’ll never forget that. But it was also a brave and courageous thing you did today, too, boy. Never forget that, either.”
For a moment, all he could do was stare up into the captain’s face, open mouthed with shock, too stunned to speak. “C-Courageous?!” he murmured, when at last he found his voice. “No, Sir. I . . . I wasn’t brave or courageous, I . . . I was afraid. The whole time, I . . . I was so afraid… ”
“What’s your name, Lad?”
“Cartwright, Sir. Benjamin Cartwright.”
“Well, Mister Benjamin Cartwright, I want you to pay very close attention to what I have to say,” the captain said in his most stern, most authoritative tone of voice. “Bravery and courage haven’t a thing to do with NOT being afraid.”
“They . . . they don’t?!” Ben queried with a bewildered frown.
“Of course not, lad. True courage is the strength and the will to act, when you ARE afraid,” the captain continued. “That’s what you did this afternoon.”
Ben exhaled a soft, melancholy sigh, and shook his head. “It wasn’t ME, Sir,” he said. “It was the boy. When I looked up and saw him under the rail around the crow’s nest, leaning so far over the edge… ”
“Don’t sell yourself short. The boy inspired you, perhaps, but even so, you STILL had to reach inside and draw upon the strength here…. ” the captain touched the place over his heart, “…to make yourself move. No one can do that for you.”
“Y-Yes, Sir,” Ben murmured, not knowing what else to say.
“You’re a good lad, young Benjamin,” the captain said, with a bare hint of a smile tugging hard at the corner of his mouth, “and if you keep on doing what I tell ya, you’re going to make a very fine sailor. A very fine sailor indeed!” Assuming, of course, that the boy’s foolhardy recklessness didn’t land him in an early grave….
“In the mean time, I’d suggest you g’won down to your bunk and grab yourself some shut-eye. I’ve been told that you’re scheduled to stand the morning watch, beginning at one bell.” *
“Yes, Sir,” Ben replied with an eager smile. “I’ll be ready.”
Abel Stoddard grinned. “I know you will be, lad. In the meantime. . . be off with ya.” He watched as the boy made his way across the short span of deck between the captain’s bed and the door to his cabin. “Yes, sir,” he silently mused, “young Benjamin is a fine young man . . . and a fine LOOKING one, too. Give him another year, maybe two to fill out properly, that boy’s going to be a real heartbreaker.”
In another year or so — less actually, given that girls seemed to come to an awareness of such things as boys, falling in love, and all the fol-de-rol that goes along with the aforesaid — his young daughter Elizabeth would, no doubt, come to agree with his assessment of one Benjamin Cartwright. For a minute, he seriously considered locking her up in her room when he came home from the sea, especially if Young Cartwright happened to be on the same ship.
Finally, he smiled first, then began to chuckle softly. “Abel Stoddard, you’re getting daft in your old age,” he chided himself, while still laughing. “Even if Liz WAS of a mind to fall in love with a sailor — which she ISN’T — she’d NEVER fall in love with young Benjamin. . . . He just plain ain’t her cup of tea.”
*According to the definition given for Ship’s Bells in the Wikipedia, this would translate as 4:30 a.m. in landlubber’s terms.