At the southern end of the village, where the river widened, there was a cove. The cove’s water was deep and made for an excellent natural harbor. The gentle hills that surrounded the cove sheltered it on three sides. A series of wharves jutted into the river along a narrow beach. Docked at the wharves were boats of every size and shape. Piles of crates, large pots, and bundles lined the wharves. Men were off-loading goods from boats, and men were loading goods onto boats. People crowded the way, coming and going, dressed in all manner of clothing. Many spoke unfamiliar words and had exotic looks. Merchants crowded around tables shouting as they bargained. Justin, Jake and Elan wandered amongst the merchants, sailors, and laborers fascinated by the sights. They listened to the strange sounds, and smelled the strange smells, mixtures of salt, sea, fish, and exotic foods cooking on grills. Atop a tall ship, rigged to carry large square sails, was a flag with a black dog on a green and silver field. These were the colors and symbol of their valley.
Jake spotted the flag first and called to his brother and cousin. “Look, that ship is flying our flag.”
"Let's see if they have news from home," Elan suggested excitedly.
Elan, Jake, and Justin quickly made their way through the crowded quay to the pier where the Black Dog ship was docked.
“Yo,” Justin shouted to one of the sailors standing on the deck. “Is this boat from the village of the Black Dog by the river on the other side of the mountains?”
“Yes,” the sailor shouted back. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m Justin, son of Josh and Melissa, and this is Jake, my brother, and our cousin, Elan, son of Sam and Sandee. We just arrived in this village. We came across the mountains. We’ve been walking for almost a year. We wonder if you have news from home.”
“We haven’t been home for months. We sailed the great sea, visited ports, and traded our goods for treasures from all over the world. Would you like to come aboard? Once loaded, we’ll be travelling back to the Village to sell our treasures. We are always looking for crew. Would like to join us?”
“I’m not sure. We hadn’t planned on returning home just yet, but I think we should think about this unexpected opportunity,” Justin called back.
“Don’t take too long to decide. We plan to set sail tomorrow. I suggest you speak to Captain Dan. He’s at the tavern in the village. He’s looking for crew as we speak.”
“Thanks,” Justin called. He turned to Jake and Elan. “Well, shall we go to see the captain?”
The three boys started to walk back toward the center of the village where the tavern was located. The main road into the village was lined with homes, many of which were fronted by stores where one could purchase or trade for goods. There were places to eat, and places to buy supplies. When they arrived at the tavern, they entered and found it full of people. Justin made his way to the bar to ask the owner if he knew Captain Dan from the Black Dog ship. Jake and Elan stood by the door; they were uncomfortable in the midst of so diverse a crowd especially having met so few people on their trek across the mountain.
“Aye,” the owner of the tavern told Justin. “The fellow at the table by the hearth is the captain of the Black Dog ship. He’s looking for hands to help him sail home.”
Justin waved to his brother and cousin and led them to the captain’s table where they waited their turn to speak with the captain. When they introduced themselves, the captain broke into a broad smile.
“I know both your parents,” he told them. I also know your Aunt Amy and Uncle Jon, and Oscar the dog. Did you know you have a new cousin? I believe they call her, Etta.” He paused and looked at each of the boys in a measured way. “So, you are looking to go home are you? Well, that’s where we’ll be heading. We should be there in several months, with smooth sailing and a prevailing wind.”
“We have no money to buy passage on your ship, but we are willing to work.” Justin said enthusiastically.
“A boat, months, work,” Jake whispered to Elan. “Sounds hard. I’m unsure about this.”
“I’d go right now,” Elan whispered back enthusiastically. He hadn’t thought about the prospects of being on the ocean for months; all he considered was his desire to go home.
“I’ll work,” Elan whispered to Jake. “Let’s just sign on! “
“But, what will we do? I think we aught to think about this,” Jake whispered back. “Can we please think about this?” Jake was concerned that Elan’s enthusiasm had overcome his judgment. Had he thought about the risks of months at sea? Maybe there were other alternatives.
The captain looked at the three; and, after a brief pause, said, “I’ll hold three places for you, but you need to let me know before the sun goes down. We set sail, at high tide tomorrow.”
The boys sat down at a table in the Tavern, but having little money they decided not to order anything and left. They walked about the town. They talked while they walked; and, without paying attention to where they wandered, they ended back at the dock of the bay, where they sat, immersed in thought, watching the ships roll in, and then watching them roll away again.
“We’re wasting time,” Justin said. “I want to go home, and we have an opportunity here right now. We need to make a decision.”
Justin felt that he’d thought out things sufficiently well for him to make a levelheaded decision. Jake, on the other hand, remained tentative about the prospect of sailing home and unswayed by Elan’s wild enthusiasm. Justin needed to understand the basis for Jake’s hesitantly.
“Jake, you are not afraid of work, and you loved to be on the river at home. I know the river is not the same as the ocean, but what are you concerned about?”
“I would go on the ship if I knew what we would be doing.”
“We can ask,” Elan responded.
“But, if I knew what I’d be doing, then, then, I wouldn’t know where we’d be sleeping.”
“I’m sure they have some type of hammock to sleep in,” Elan said.
“But, if I knew where I’d be sleeping, I wouldn’t know when I’d be eating.”
“Sounds like you have a ‘what if’ for every explanation. You can always find some reason not to do something. Sometimes you need to put away your “what ifs”, weigh the risks and benefits regarding the task at hand and just do what you need to do,” Justin said to Jake, and then turned to Elan, “You’re enthusiasm is encouraging, but we need to be certain we look before we leap.”
Jake thought about his options and everyone’s wishes to go home. Doing work was not so bad. Sleeping in hammocks could be fun. Not knowing for certain all the “what ifs” wasn’t really enough to out weigh the joy of going home. He missed his mother and father, and he wanted to see his new cousin, Etta. It wasn’t like he didn’t work when he was home, and he didn’t relish the long walk back across the mountains, as beautiful as that journey would be. He wanted to get home. He had to let the fear of the uncertain, of something different and less familiar, keep him from what he really wanted.
“Okay,” Jake said. “Let’s go back to Captain Dan and sign on. I’m not sure what they would have us do. Perhaps I’ll have to clean the decks, or help with whatever.”
Justin, Jake, and Elan made their way back to the tavern to talk to Captain Dan. They entered the tavern well before sunset. The captain still sat at the same table.
“Well,” the captain said as they walked up to his table. “Do you want to sign on for the voyage home?”
“Yes,” Justin said as spokesman for the three. “I’m afraid we don’t have much experience with sailing except for what we did on the river back home.”
“We’ll teach you, and you will do fine. Now, make your way back to the boat and ask for Becky. She’ll find space for each of you and give you your assignments.”
Back to the wharves they went, with a skip in their step, and a positive attitude about their next adventure. Interesting how good they felt about the decision they’d made. They decided to sell the things they wouldn’t need on the trip. They kept their tools and sleeping gear, and the fishing hooks and line. When they returned to the boat with the Black Dog flag, they found Becky overseeing the crew.
“And how can I help you boys?” Becky said.
“The captain has hired us as crew.” Elan said proudly.
“What experience have you had on boats like this?” Becky asked.
“None,” was the collective response from the three.
“We’re strong. We’re good workers. We are quick learners, and we are from the village of the Black Dog,” Justin said.
“Well, that says it all. Have you any skills?” Becky asked.
“I can cook,” Elan said.
“I can climb, and I’m not afraid of heights,” Jake declared.
“I’m willing to do whatever tasks I’m assigned,” Justin said and added, “I’m good with tools, and I can repair things.”
“I will assign each of you a place below deck to store your things and sleep. Then, I will have Jake go with the men who tend the sails. The crew will teach you how to raise and lower the sails and maintain them. Elan will join the cook in the galley, to learn about procuring supplies, preparing food, and washing the pots. Justin will follow the ship’s carpenter and learn how to keep the ship running and doctor the crew.
The boys went their assigned ways and pitched in making the ship ready to sail on the next day’s high tide. The ship sat low in the water, fully laden with goods and supplies, but rose with the tide; and when the crew cast off the lines, the boat drifted with the waning tide current away from the dock and out into the main channel of the river. The boat passed through the delta and made its way out to open water. Once in open water, the crew, Jake among them, raised the sails. The boys had begun their journey home.
Once their work was done, they met at the bow. As they sat, they listened to the rhythm of the water as it beat upon the hull, felt the gentle rise and fall of the boat as it cut through the waves, and experienced the cool salt spray on their faces. They had taken an opportunity to learn new skills, perfect old skills, and begin a new beginning. They spoke about what was ahead, how good it would be to be home, and meet Etta.
“Jake, are you sorry you are here and on your way home?” Justin asked his brother.
“No, actually, I’m quite pleased with myself. I feel positive about being here and look forward to doing a good job. Thanks for not letting me excuse my way out of this,” Jake responded.
“The ocean is beautiful, I can’t wait to see the stars tonight,” said Elan.
“There is no better feeling than meeting a challenge with your best effort, and no better challenge than taking on change.” Justin said.
Peter Barbour is a retired physician, who loves to tell stories. He lives in Allentown, PA. He is married. He published a short novel, “Loose Ends” in 1988, available on Amazon.com. His first short story, “Things can Always Get Worse”, appeared in Being, M. Talarico and Daughter Publications, 1992. Four short stories appeared, in Raconteur, Susan Carroll Publishing, 1993-1995, “The Fate of Dicky Paponovitch”, was awarded Raconteur of the Month, May 1994. He published three short stories at shortbreadstories.co.uk, “Fishing with Nick”, “Dad Stories”, and “Earl’s Lake, Home to the Big Bass”. He has also published “How the Night Became Bright”, “Messyman”, and “Simplicity”, at ShortStory.me.