Atlantic Ocean, 1814
I scrubbed the ship’s deck while the hot sun beat down on my back. I took a swig of water and fixed my eyes on the group of midshipmen, who were being taught a lesson in navigation by the third lieutenant. Their navy uniforms looked sharp against the soft blue sky. A swift blow to the back of my head sent me face first into the hard wood floor. Black stars flecked my vision as I awkwardly sat back up. I shielded my eyes from the bright light as I stared up at Izzy in a daze.
“Get back to work before I smack ya again!” he snarled.
He leered at me with a wicked grin. I winced as his liquor-laced breath assaulted my nostrils.
“Is something amiss, Izzy?” asked a midshipman.
Both me and Izzy saluted him. Midshipman Smyth’s keen dark eyes travelled from me to Izzy. By the looks of things, the navigating lesson had ended, and he happened to catch sight of my plight at the right time.
“Nothing is amiss, Sir. I was just telling this wee rat to get back to work is all.”
“From what I could see, Izzy, is that he was taking a drink of water. I ask that you refrain from hitting him in the future. Is that understood?”
I choked on the lump in my throat, startled that someone so respected would defend me. From what I gathered from the sailor’s talk, Smyth was on his way to being promoted to lieutenant soon.
“Yes, Sir,” said Izzy.
“Very good,” said Smyth with a nod. “As you were.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I said, looking up at the young officer.
I thought that I saw a hint of a smile before he turned away to open the book in his hands. I felt a pang for my own books. Ma would be reading them without me. I kept my head down for the rest of the shift, and worked without taking any more water breaks.
At sundown, one of the lieutenants yelled, “To your stations!”
Men and boys pushed past me as I looked on in confusion.
“It’s a battle stations drill,” said Phil.
Smyth approached me. I saluted.
“I’ll show you your station. Quick now! We can’t dawdle. It’s below decks and quite dark, but you’ll manage.”
“Below decks during battle, Sir?” I asked.
“You’ll be one of the ship’s powder monkeys.”
There was that term again.
“What’s that?” I asked.
A round of laughter sounded from the sailors who were within earshot of my question.
“Hurry now,” ordered Smyth.
He lit a lantern and carried it as we travelled deep into the ship’s bowels. Then he opened the door to a cool chamber. He looked over his shoulder at me. I felt like we were characters in some sort of mystery novel.
“This is called the magazine. You’ll be carrying the powder back and forth to the guns during combat. Hence, why you’re called a ‘powder monkey’.”
“The captain trusts me with this duty?” I asked in surprise.
“You’re small and quick, which burdens you with one of the most important jobs on the ship.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said with a nod.
“I’ll show you the gun deck.”
He led me out of the darkness to a deck containing a row of cannons. My heart raced as eerie silence surrounded us. One day, thunder, battle cries, and splintering wood would fill the air as I ran to and from the magazine.
“The speed that we fire the cannons rests on your shoulders. You need to move as quick as you can from the magazine to the gun deck.”
I took in a deep breath, nodding.
“You’ll do fine. At your height, the cannon balls should miss your head as long as you slouch when you’re on deck.”
“Where will you be during a battle, Sir?”
“I’ll be the captain for a section of guns.” His expression darkened. “Step lively. The captain wants to meet you.”
The butterflies in my stomach emerged from their cocoons and took flight. I took a deep breath, unable to hide my nervousness. The sun hit our pale faces as we climbed above deck, and I was suddenly grateful for its warmth. The captain strode over to us. He was tall, lean, and beardless; his dark bicorne hat emphasized his height. I tensed at his hard look, wondering for a moment if he meant to stomp on me.
“Captain, Sir,” I said, saluting.
“I am Captain Hawthorne. My ship’s name is the HMS Wind.”
“Very good, Sir.”
“At ease,” he commanded. “What’s your name, boy?”
“My name is Max.”
“Do you have an education, Max?”
“Yes, Sir. I went to a school house until I was ten, Sir. I read a lot of books. I know some history as well.”
The corners of his mouth lifted slightly before he glanced out at the burning orange horizon. The sunset cast a spell upon the sea, making it glow.
“I trust that Smyth has shown you where the magazine is and has explained your job duties.”
I followed the other sailors below deck for our evening meal. I spooned a heaping mouthful of the steamy slop into my mouth; it settled into my belly just fine. Most of the other sailors were two or three times my age and paid me little mind. I didn’t mind the solitude, for nothing was worse than being bullied.
I settled in my swaying hammock while the men played cards, sang sea songs, and drank their ale. I scanned the area for Izzy and his lot. They were playing a heated game of cards in the middle of the room. I was relieved he forgot about me for the time being. Phil sat on the other side of the room talking quietly with an older man. I rolled over and caught sight of Smyth and the other midshipmen playing their own game of cards at a table in the corner. A few of them were as young as I; I felt a tinge of envy as I watched them all talk and laugh as friends. I had my wits about me and my level of reading likely surpassed most of the seamen. I would show them all one day that I was more than just a disposable powder monkey.
My childhood imaginings of adventure and danger seemed foolish to me at the moment as I rolled onto my back. I stared at the ceiling thinking about Ma. I hoped that I would stop missing her, for the feeling of her absence was dreadful. I lay awake until the chortling and chatter died down and the lanterns were blown out. Once everyone was lying in their hammocks in the darkness, I relaxed and gave in to the world of my dreams.