Shepherd James

January 21, 2010
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“James, load the cargo!” Salty yelled from farther down the dock. Salty was an old sea dog at heart. He seemed to be a bit out of his time, a bit crazy. But when he knew he was needed, or needed to be serious, there was no one more sharp or down to Earth than him. He was one you could trust, and count on as a friend and a Captain. Not one of his shipmates challenged his position as captain, and when he gave orders, they were followed without a word. No one knew Salty’s real name. No one has in fifty years. Some say it was something he disliked about himself; others say Salty was a title he had earned by a previous captain. Other’s say he just forgot his name. He’s old, but not frail. His bones aren’t as strong as they once were in newer days, but they still carry the same supplies out to the same ship he’s been sailing all his years, still sailed that ship, still fought every battle he had to.

I did as I was told, loading barrels of salted fish and meats onto the deck of the Shepherd. She was a frigate, a warship made for speed and maneuvering around such a vast ocean world. A long, proud shape she was; square and full rigged, but faster than most of her kind. These ships were usually heavy-armed and used for patrolling and escort, but Salty picked her to travel the world because she was an amazing battleship with excellent steering, plus she was able to carry six months’ stores. The Shepherd was once an unnamed ship for many years, until Salty began to refer to the ship as the “Shipmates Shepherd.” Eventually the term was shortened to just Shepherd and the name stuck. She was famous for her mighty resistance to the sea’s overpowering, brute salty strength. This ship alone has fought many pirates; been in contact with cannons that have ripped her board by board, from nose to sternum, and she’s been rebuilt again to sail the seas once more.

“Traveled the world more than twice she has.” The shipmates would always say as they poured a glass of the silkiest rum. The boat I was about to board, the journey I was about to embark on would be on this very ship.

My stomach flipped as I set foot onto the ship. I could feel the many adventures, all the pacing done on this deck, the bloody battles, the treasure loaded in from wins against other pirates, all through my feet. Salty studied me from the deck.

“What’choo just standin’ around for boy! Grab somethin’ and pitch in! Yar not goin’ on this trip if yer don’t help out!” His teeth were chipped and cracked, but they still formed into a loose smile. I wondered how much damage had been done when Salty took a nosedive down the stairs on the deck to down below last year.

It was a story everyone knew and loved to tell behind the Captain’s back. He had been hammered on the drink, and all the shipmates clattered cans and sang along to a jolly old sailor’s tune, until suddenly, the Captain dove down the stairs to below deck, hollering, “They be comin’! They be comin’!” After that, he passed out and began snoring loudly.

I nodded, returning the smile, and hurried over to the last visible crate. Picking it up, I realized it was full to the brim with cheese. Exotic cheeses of all kinds, taken from many lands and islands I could only dream of. Cheeses in shades of a goldenrod and marigold, holed and smooth, round and square.

“Why we need so much cheese Captain?” I called out to Salty, who had his back turned to me. When he turned around, his mustache was buried deep in a selection of an orange cheese chunk. He replied, “If yer don’t love cheese, yer can’t be on the ship!” Bits of orange sprinkled off from his whiskers, and out his mouth. I hoped he wasn’t serious about such a thing; I hated cheese.

I cringed, my nose turned up in a silent disgust. Salty saw my disdain and his eyes widened. He said with a hearty laugh, “Yer don’t like cheese!?”

I sighed with a smile. “No sir. I’ll eat just about anything, but cheese is one thing I prefer to keep out of my diet.”

“Yaaaaar.” He grumbled, a smile still radiating those old lines of sweet age he had acquired over time, each like a jewel, or a memory; a token earned for something he took pride in. “That’s okay my boy, maybe one day you will see straight through those eyes o’ yers.”

“Maybe sir.” I tried to hold back a laugh, but the goofy expression now on the Captain’s face made it so that by the time I said: “But I doubt it”, the two of us were already chuckling. I boarded the ship with a warm smile, the sun weaving intricate pattern of light and shadow in and out of the blonde highlights of the brown tousled hair set atop my head. By now, the sun was high in the sky, and it was nearing time to leave port. My stomach churned again; I have never been a pirate before, and never until now did I see myself on the path to becoming one. I was a runaway. By age fifteen, I had left my old cape cod styled home and had made my way to the pacific coast, where I had met Salty.

I had been on my way to a local thrift store, when I noticed that a man at about fifty years old in the face had been studying me for quite some time now. I hadn’t thought I had much potential for anything, nor had I been any of a suspicious figure. I was only a mere boy who was a homeless, dirty thing; not a jewel to the eye. Nevertheless, Salty had followed me all the way to the thrift store in which I chose to shop in. When I exited the tiny building, Salty stopped me with a short hand gesture.

“Hello sir. Can I help you with something?” I didn’t prefer to talk to strangers, but now my curiosity had been raised.
“Son, yer lookin’ a little haggard. You from around here?” His voice was low and scruffy; demanding, but not offensive or frightening. He didn’t appear to be anything more than a feeble old man, but in a few weeks, he would become a father to me.
“Oh no sir, I’m from out of town.”
“You got a home?”
“No sir.” Was my quiet reply. Truth is, I had been sheltering in a house I had made myself in the nearby woods. Growing up, my mother had been a relentless drinker. I had come to accept her ways, but my father, sick of dealing with her out of control attitude and increasingly obnoxious demeanor, left us both. Though I had never been much in my mother’s eyes, I wasn’t worthless either. I knew all her anger she had weighed on me was because she was under so much stress herself. Trying to raise a child with no money, no job, and soon to be no home would have anyone’s feathers in a bunch. Her alcoholism just increased her stress and financial situation as well. I left before we were evicted. I had never really loved her; what I felt for her was little more than pity and respect, and though I felt bad for leaving my mother, I knew for myself it was the best thing. Fifteen, and with barely a high school education, I split.
“Yer got a job?”
“Yea, but the pay’s not much and I suspect I’ll be getting laid off soon anyway. The place is going out of business.”
“Yer don’t get seasick do ye?”
“Well sir, I’ve been on a boat once in my life. I didn’t get sick then, but-” He cut me off with a warm smile, saying,
“It’s good enough.”

Two years later I was holding my own, and being brought into the small home of the mysterious man who had picked me up off of the streets. He offered me a job I just couldn’t resist. The way he described the pirates life; the thrill, treasure, battles, it was as if I was a child again discovering the magic I had never had the chance to experience. He said there was a lot of preparing to do, and so I offered to help.

“Strong hands like yers are needed, but in due time my boy. In time. This work is for the crew, but if you would like to learn about the what you will be dealing with daily, I’d go take a look and observe what the men are up to.”
The day I had set foot on the deck for the very first time was a thrill unlike any other.

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