At first, the sculps arrived at a frantic pace. John began by trying to keep the scuppers clear, so any water trapped on deck could drain off. However, this left gaps in the wall, making the piles likely to tumble over. He was puzzling over what to do when Herb Butler came up to him.
“Looks like a row of bad teeth the way you’ve got them stacked there, my son,” the master watch said with a glint in his eye.
“Aye, sir,” John said. “Seems proper to keep the scuppers open. You never know what kind of seas we’ll meet on the way home.”
Butler nodded. Pointing toward the captain’s cabin, he said, “By the look of things though, he’s not going to give us any choice.” He motioned toward the heaps of sculps accumulating mid-deck. “That madman is set on jamming as many on deck as he possibly can.”
“Should we stack them solid then?”
“I believe so, right to the rails.” Butler looked toward the bridge and said quietly, “Try to keep the aft and forward scuppers clear if you can. Lash the stacks in, too.”
Butler turned and walked away.
John now knew for certain that the ship’s troubles had begun for real. He looked up at the steel blue sky. The sun warmed his face and an unexpectedly soft breeze, springlike, seemed to say that his worries were needless.
“All right, boys,” John shouted to his crew. “Fill in those gaps there. Let’s make this a real wall.”
By late morning the stream of freshly killed sculps dwindled. Gangs of hunters returned empty-handed.
“Jesus,” one said as he scrambled aboard. “Every single harp is gone. Now you see them, now you don’t, bloody magicians.”
“Yes, my son,” another added. “The young ones have all taken to the water now, not a whitecoat in the lot. They’re all raggedy.” He looked at the bridge. “I suppose the old man will want to start shooting them now.”
“God, I hope not,” John said looking at the pile of sculps on deck.
By noon there was no more room against the bulwarks. John had managed to keep the fore and aft scuppers clear, but a pile of unstacked pelts still remained on the deck. He decided to search out Herb Butler for advice about where to put the remainder.
Just then, George Clarke came on deck. His ruffled clothes and scruffy beard gave him a particularly menacing look as he shuffled over toward John. He towered over the young sealer.
“Well, my boy,” Clarke said, “finished?”
John started to ask about the remaining sculps, but Clarke interjected.
“Sloppy work there. You haven’t run the stack all the way to the end. She’ll shift in a heavy sea.”
“But the scuppers, sir. They should be clear.”
“I just thought it would be a good idea. We could meet some heavy seas on the way home. She’d never drain.”
Clarke bristled. “So you thought, did you? And exactly who told you to do the thinking around here?” He stared at John for an answer.
John looked down at the grease-encrusted deck. “It’s only wise, sir,” he mumbled.
“What did you say?” Clarke shouted. “Speak up, man.”
John tried to speak, but could not. He wanted to turn and run. Taking a deep breath, he gathered all his strength and met Clarke’s eyes straight on. “It’s only wise, sir, I said.”
“Wise, you say. How can a young snip like you talk about wise? I’ve been on the ice for twenty-six years, boy, since before you were born, and you’re telling me what’s wise.” The captain raised his huge hand in the air.
John readied himself for the blows, but none came.
“Listen here,” Clarke said, “there’s only one version of wise on this ship, and it’s mine.” His face reddened as he thumped his huge chest. “It’s mine. Do you hear me? Mine.” He was shouting.
John nodded, continuing to look at the deck.
“It was me told him to leave the deck drains clear,” Herb Butler said from behind John. He was puffing, having run from somewhere. “Lundrigan here was following my orders. Leave him be.”
Clarke looked right through John toward his master watch, who was trying to regain his wind. “You?”
“Yes, me. I told him to leave the fore and aft scuppers open.”
“And what about those?” Clarke said, pointing to the pile of sculps on deck. He raised himself on tiptoes, glaring down at Butler. “I suppose you want to give them to Davy Jones.”
John turned to see Butler stand erect and, with an insolent shrug, suggest that would be better than the decks not draining properly.
Clarke erupted. His jaw hardened as he strode over, nose-to-nose with Butler, almost knocking John over as he passed. The captain thumped his finger on Butler’s chest. “You listen here, Mister Butler,” he shouted, “and you listen good. Those sculps are going in those spaces.” He jerked his finger toward the gaps John had left, “There, there, there and there.” He thumped Butler’s chest even harder, causing the master watch to stagger backwards. “And any you can’t get in there are going in your bunk. Do you hear me?”
A pall came over the men on deck who stood in shock as their favourite officer was dressed down in public by their captain who seemed to have lost control. They kept their eyes to the deck, lest Clarke’s ire settle on them.
“You put those sculps in those open spaces right now,” the captain bellowed.
“No, sir, I will not, sir.” Butler said.
Clarke’s face turned even redder. He paused to collect himself. “Mister Butler,” he said in a menacing voice, “are you refusing to obey an order from your captain?”
Butler stood erect, looking straight at Clarke. “Yes, sir, I am, when the order poses a clear danger to the ship.”
The captain stepped toward Butler, fists clenched.
Butler stepped back.
Clarke managed to restrain himself. In a very quiet but ominous voice, he said, “Mister Butler, you can rest assured that this is the last trip you will be taking with me. I’ll have none of this mutiny from my officers, you hear? Now you do as I bid.”
“I will not,” Butler replied. He turned his back and began to walk toward his quarters. “I will not be party to this insanity.”
“You come back, Mister Butler!,” the captain shouted.
Butler kept on walking.
“You go to your cabin, then. Be sure you stay there until we get home.”
Without looking back, Butler walked directly to the officers’ quarters and slammed the door, leaving Clarke to sputter at the weatherworn wood.
“Consider yourself put on the log, Mister Butler. I’ll make sure you never get work on a sealer again.” The captain was trembling. He turned around and looked at the men, all standing with their heads down. “Well?” he bellowed. “Is there no man here with the courage to obey a simple order?” A shuffle passed through the men, “Well?”
James Kelly pushed forward. “I will,” he said. He approached Clarke and whispered, “You go to your cabin, George. I’ll take care of this.” A bewildered look passed across Clarke’s face. He surveyed the men once more, looking like a lost schoolboy. An eerie silence engulfed the ship as he turned and limped toward his cabin.
After the captain was gone, Kelly went over to the rail and looked over the ice for a long time. Finally, he turned and walked over to the stack of pelts mid-deck. “Well, let’s get at it. If that’s what he wants, that’s what he’ll get.” He pulled a sculp off the pile, dragged it over to a gap, adroitly sliding it into the open space. “Let’s do the man’s bidding and plug up those holes.”
A whole wave of men flooded forward to help. Kelly kept working too, like a common deckhand. Within fifteen minutes the wall of pelts was filled in and lashed. The sculps spanned the full length of both the port and starboard bulwarks. Like a massive jigsaw puzzle, all of the sealskins had been fitted into place. The wall had displaced the Cross’s lifeboats so the men stowed them atop the piles.
When the men left, the main deck was deserted, save for John and Noah who stood side by side, surveying the massive stockade of pelts. “Now, that’s a wall of wealth,” Noah said. “Lord Jesus, we’re so overloaded that if an ice bird shit on us now we’d go down like a stone.” Noah retreated to the forepeak.
John was positive they were in for it now. Without doubt, the ship was in grave danger. He saw Clarke’s wall of wealth was a wall of death, certain to trap any water that came over the side. If there was even a hint of bad weather on the way home, the ship was doomed. And somehow he knew weather was on its way.
John headed below to his little corner of the forepeak. Since the other sealers had moved in, his refuge, formerly full of goodwill and humour, had become a hard place. Everyone seemed to be angry since they were crowded and less comfortable. No one smiled. Even the corners of the rough-hewn stanchions looked sharp and harsh now.
The boys stopped talking when John entered.
Jacob broke the awkward silence. “I thought the old man was going to knock your block off out there.”
John nodded. “Me, too.”
“You should never have done what you did, getting Butler in trouble like that. See what happened because of you?”
John ignored this. “The skipper’s losing his keel. He’s not thinking straight. Boys,” John said, “we’re in for it. I know for certain the ship is going to sink.” He paused to be sure everyone was listening. “She’s overloaded. If the copper didn’t cover the load line, you’d see we’re down way past the safe point. She’s top-heavy too, with those sculps on deck. We’re going to sink, sure as the sun will rise.” He looked over at his friends.
“Don’t talk so bad,” Lawrence Gibbons said.
After a stony silence, Sebastian, the biggest and meanest of the Gibbons, spoke. “We ought to be happy. We’re loaded heavy, the best hunt this old boat has ever had. You’re just a jinker, talking like that. We should be celebrating, not worrying. Leave us be. Take your frets somewhere else. We don’t want to hear them.” He looked at the other boys, urging them to agree. Several “yeas” confirmed his position. “Off with you now.” He gestured at John as he would a scolded dog.
“No,” John said defiantly, “our success will be our undoing. The extra seals on deck will sink us.”
“Don’t be such a maid.”
“Butler was right, you know, to refuse to block off the scuppers. She won’t drain properly.”
“Why should we listen to that turncoat? He won’t follow a simple order.”
“No, no,” John pleaded, “he was right.”
“What foolishness,” Sebastian said, “you’re just sorry you lost your position now we’re full.”
“You been all chuffed up like a bandy rooster every since Butler put you in charge of loading. You’ve been acting too proud.”
From the corner Lawrence Gibbons added, “The only reason Butler put you in charge of the loading crew is because you’re too small to do anything else.”
John looked over at him, mouth open.
“And he’s got a thing for you, too. Don’t think we haven’t seen it. You’ve gotten pure beside yourself with notions,” Sebastian said. A vicious glint issued from the corner of his eye. “Now, little John, you’re just one of us ordinary sealers.”
John was thunderstruck. By refusing to meet his gaze, Noah agreed; Jacob too. “But you don’t understand,” he pleaded. “We’re in grave danger.”
Sebastian took a step toward him. “Shut your mouth,” he said through clenched teeth. “No cause to stir up a lop in a piggin.”
John never saw it coming, a roundhouse right that landed square on his jaw. A golden light flashed and then everything went black.
The Mystery of the SS Southern Cross
by Tim Rogers
$22.95, paperback, 300 pp.
Creative Book Publishing, April 2014