Wild waves ferociously slammed the ship, sending it in a confused, rocky motion. Water lunged on the wooden deck. Passengers panicked. In a hurry, crew members rallied, bucketing the water back into the violent sea. Almost every night, it had been this way.
Underneath, in the overcrowded cargo hold, pesky vermin scurried. My 6-year old sister Helen, lay motionless, face down, with Mama caring for her.
“Oh, my poor baby!” Mama shouted swiftly grabbing Helen into her arms. Mama’s soothing whisper of a lullaby softly reverberated around the room. Even the rats dropped their scavenged crumbs to listen.
I felt awful, and as I walked over to comfort my sister, I started praying. Praying for Helen to be all right, but mostly just praying to go back. Back to Connecticut, off the ship and out of the Gold Fever.
After the waves died down, I searched for Papa, my older brother Jesse, and Louise, who was only a year older than Helen.
“Helen’s still sick, maybe a fever or something.”
“I know,” replied Papa, resting a hand on my shoulder, “Mama will take care of her. Helen will be all right.”
We all remained in worried silence as we descended into the cabin. It was late, and everyone drifted off to sleep, except I lay awake, thinking back on my life prior to the gold frenzy.
I labored at the Connecticut textile mill, with Mama, Helen and Louise, as Papa and Jesse slaved elsewhere. The mill was a large complex, with a showy outside with its graceful water wheel, and a moldy, dusty, linty inside with rusted old and heavy machinery. My job was to save every scrap of cotton, and lend a hand in the dying, bleaching, twisting, and kneading process. Although injuries often occurred, careful workers got by alright. I had formed a bond with the other children, sliding around on the greasy floors when the boss was away, or sneaking outside to play tag, to escape the chalky air. It was grueling, and we lost our friend Frank to a machine accident. Our hands became chemical filled from the bleach, but we survived. Until all that changed one day.
Although it was still dark in the cramped hold, groggy voices could be heard among the deck. It was breakfast time, the same tough “hard-tack” biscuit every day, not even any sardine oil this time to soften it up. All the meats packed for the voyage had been eaten, now we were surviving on minimal, tasteless biscuits. At least in Connecticut, porridge was plentiful, though usually undercooked.
Jesse and I brought the hard-tack down for Mama, Louise, and especially Helen. We all voraciously gobbled down the unchewable, bland biscuit.
“Attention!” bellowed the captain from the deck above, “Last night brought an awful storm, everyone needs to help clean this mess. Now!”
Papa and Jesse hurried. If anyone of age from the lower class were caught slacking off, there were clear consequences. Mama, Louise and I remained below. But here, Helen required help. I just wanted to play with my old friends, not care for Helen.
The fever worsened. Helen muttered in her sleep. Mama became hungry and tired; she could not keep this pace for much longer.
“Be brave, Ralph,” Mama directed me, “We’re starting a new life, we can’t return to Connecticut. Give California a chance.”
“I will Mama,” I obligingly agreed.
At nighttime, our exhausted family collapsed onto the rough floor that became our beds. I lied awake contemplating.
Gold Fever was sweeping the town. The first day we saw the newspaper, Louise and Helen were enamored with the “pretty” gold. Soon, our Connecticut jobs started disappearing as everyone moved to California, for the great 1849 Gold Rush. Even Papa got swept with Gold Fever. We begged and borrowed for funds to travel to California. Somehow, after securing loans and selling everything, we began a new life, starting with this trip to the Sacramento gold mines.
Be brave, Ralph. Mama’s words resonated in my brain as I contemplated starting anew. I did not want to be brave. I wanted to return to my old life and forget this perilous journey. Be brave, Ralph. Be brave.
On the dawn of the next day, Jesse and Papa disappeared to lend a hand on the deck.
Mama stayed awake all night looking after Helen. Her face creased, her lips tightened, her hair seemed haggard, and her eyes were bloodshot with veins of red, with large purple bags visible beneath them.
“Ralph,” Mama pleaded, “I’m so exhausted and need your help looking after Helen today.”
“Uhhh,” I groaned, “Sure, Mama.”
Mama instructed me how to assist Helen by laying the wet cloth on Helen’s forehead, protecting her from the vermin, and feeding her tiny crumbs of biscuits and water. Utterly drained, Mama collapsed onto the floor.
I want to go back home. Angrily, I crawled towards the damp cloth. Back to Connecticut. I seized the cloth, pressing it against Helen’s relieved forehead. Back to where I had friends, and where I had a taste of freedom.
“Owww,” Helen whimpered, signaling that I pressed too hard.
I don’t want to be here, I thought to myself.
“Oh,” I drew back the moist cloth, and instead wiped it softly on her face. Don’t want to do this. Grabbing a biscuit and a tiny jug of water from nearby, I diced up the hard tack, and soaked it in water, shoving it into Helen’s mouth. I just wish this never happened.
Trying to bring myself back to the mill days, I closed my eyes and glided across the hard floor, as I used to do. Pesky vermin squeaked, scuttled through my legs, and my socks stuck on the rough ground, but I did not care. I just kept skating. A high-pitched, short wail erupted from the other side of the room.
Suddenly, I whirled around and my eyes widened. The vermin, the scream, guarding Helen, Oh no! I rushed over to Helen, and saw her crawling with rats.
“Shoo! Shoo!” I bellowed. Once all the rodents disappeared, I noticed a small cut on Helen’s tiny arm. Taking short, panicked breaths, I spun around to find the wet cloth, pressing it against the wound.
“I’m so sorry.” Sobbing, I pressed my wet face against her chest, “I’m sorry Helen, so, so sorry.” My insides came pouring out into my tears against Helen’s soft, young face.
In her fragile sleep, Helen started sweating, moistening the surrounding cold floor. Mournfully, I lifted myself up and grabbed the damp cloth, hopefully dabbing it on Helen’s forehead. The cloth went dry. Helen needed a new one, and fast, too. Nearby, my sister Louise was in a light slumber, but I woke her up to guard Helen from the rats. Praying that Helen would hold on and Louise would not make the same mistake I committed, I scaled the ladder.
I remembered the days in the mill when I crawled under the tables, and thrusted my hands into the rusted cogs to pull out a piece of cloth. Every time was awful, every time I had to do it or lose my job, and do it correctly or lose my arm. Now, I had to climb down each vermin-infested cabin, and look. Look for a doctor. Look for scraps of food. Look for clean water. Look for anything that might help Helen. Look for a chance at redemption. This was not what we signed up for when we left Connecticut in hopes of a better life. All that lay before me was a place to look. And look I did.
With a flurried hop, I entered our little cargo hold, a tiny bucket of water and cloth in one hand, the only decent food on the ship in another. I was relieved to see Louise vigilantly watching over Helen.
“Oh, thanks so much Louise,” I sincerely assured her.
Louise’s eyes caught mine, and she glanced at me extra long before moving to the side.
As I dipped the cloth in the water and pressed against Helen, it was clear that her disease was escalating every minute. Drops of sweat fell from her head as she fidgeted on the hard floor. The cloth was a cool relief but would not last long. I forced her to consume some meat I had salvaged, and although I was tempted, I knew Helen needed it most. I recalled Mama’s words Be brave, Ralph. For the rest of that day and night, I ignored my impulse and sat by Helen’s side, stroking her cheek and periodically dabbing her forehead and nourishing her. “I’m so sorry Helen,” I repeated throughout.
When Mama woke up, she saw the pool of sweat that had piled under Helen. “Is everything alright?” she questioned, dubiously.
Staring at the floor, I didn’t answer for a long time before blurting out, “I’m so sorry. It’s just, I was really selfish. I left Helen, and the rats, they...”
“Helen, oh my poor baby!” Mama interrupted, leaning over and pecking her on the cheek, before turning to me, with that look of shame.
“I’m so, so sorry. That was so stupid.” I sincerely muttered. A nagging feeling in my heart pulled me toward Helen, and I hugged her, “I’ll never do that again, okay Helen?” I told her.
Within a few more days, Mama and I nursed Helen; I only left her side to deliver food or water. Soon it was not only Mama with those terrible bags. Finally, Helen was improving slightly, but we feared the worst.
Helen had just awoken for a little when Jesse peaked his excited face down the hold, “Land is nigh! By nightfall we will reach the great Golden State!”
“Really?” I questioned as I dashed up the cabin to observe. Overhead, the sun, not greeting me in a couple days, shone its bright rays on the world before us, illuminating a narrow strip of land in the distance. I was hesitant, but those words reappeared in my head, Be brave, Ralph.
Papa and Mama brought Helen and Louise up for a glance themselves. As if by magic, when Helen caught a glimpse of real soil, she sprang out of Mama’s hands, and danced around for the first time in a month. Soon Louise was on the ground, giggling with her too. Jesse and I smiled in the background, and Mama and Papa grasped hands. We all huddled in close together, as one big goofy family again.
In that very moment I declared, “All I need is right before my very eyes.”