I opened the envelope and several pages of foolscap fell out. The handwriting was masculine, and, despite being written with india ink, smeared with water damage in places. I began reading:
Aug 18, 18__
My name is Tom Foster, and I am the captain of the Spirit of Caledon, a charter boat that usually plies the waters in the firth. Day trips to the tourist trade. We don’t have a proper log, but I thought I should write a few words in case rescue fails to arrive in time. You see, when the call came out to the Middlesea Fleet to steam to Saint Kitt Islands on a rescue mission, I summoned my crew. “I think it is our duty to help. Although we lack the speed of the military vessels, the Spirit can hold many more passengers, and we may be of some great assistance.” I had heard down at the dock that many people were gathering on the beach on the main island of Saint Kitt, but there was concern the volcano was not dormant, as reported. I saw Captain O’Toole himself on the docks that morning, and the drawn look on his face showed me how seriously he took the threat. He ordered the fleet to steam to the island in the event a rapid evacuation was needed. I wanted to accompany them, but the decision was not mine alone to make. “We have never traveled that far from shore before, and there is some risk to us if we make the journey. Even though I’m your captain, I must ask each of you if you want to assume that risk.”
My men are solid and loyal, and to a man they threw in their lot with me. Micah Goodwin, my first mate, Zeb McDowell, the engineer, and Stuart Washington and Ronnie Pittston, who man the boiler room, have been with me for many years. We loaded coal, removed the serving staff and valuables, and set out.
Stuart and Ronnie did their best to keep the boilers at maximum output, but we could not keep pace with the fleet. Micah used to be a navigator on one of the old sailing ships in the navy, so he kept us on course even when we could no longer see the last of Captain O’Toole’s vessels. When we made it, we anchored away from the fleet, as I didn’t want to get in their way. We were on the far side of the main island, and if any of the naval vessels noticed us, they did not acknowledge our presence.
As the day wore on, I began to feel a little foolish. Zeb said, “I bet they’re having one hell of a good time down on the beach. Girls in bathing suits, a little rum,…” He pictured himself there, instead of being stuck with four men. Then the rumbling started, so quiet at first that we could hardly hear or feel it. An hour later, the rumbling increased in intensity so much that we were having to raise our voices to be heard above it. “Looks like we may be needed after all,” I observed, and Micah nodded his head.
The shadows were growing long when the volcano erupted. It spewed rocks, ash, and noxious gasses high into the air. “Raise anchor!” I ordered. We started to steam around the island, toward the beach, to see if we could rescue any party-goers. We had not been under way long, though, when an enormous explosion took off the top of the volcano. Large chunks of flaming rock flew in all directions. Some hit the Spirit, starting a few small fires on the teak deck, but the crew doused the flames quickly and it appeared that we suffered no serious damage.
Micah yelled that the helm was not responding to his commands. I made my way from the bow, where I had my spyglass trained on the volcano to see what it would do next, to the bridge. Before I could confer with my mate, a shock wave from the explosion sent a wall of water toward us, engulfing the ship and pushing us away from Saint Kitt altogether. Micah and I held fast to the bulkhead in an effort to keep our feet. I could not see Zeb, and I hoped he, too, was someplace where he would not be washed overboard. Stuart and Ronnie were belowdecks, and so were safe for the moment.
Or so I thought. As we continued to withstand the pounding of the waves, I heard a muffled explosion from below and aft of me. That was the direction of the boiler room. I could do nothing about it at the time; I could only continue to hold on while we were pushed farther and farther from shore.
My hand grows tired. I will pick up the narrative in the morning.
Aug 19, 18__
At long last, the sea calmed. The sun had finished setting during our ordeal, and the sky was now starlit. I looked around me, but saw no sign of land. Micah grasped the wheel again, but still there was no response. Taking the spyglass on deck, I searched for land through the powerful lens, and still found none. By my reckoning, using the constellations as a guide, Saint Kitt Islands should have been south of us, but I could see nothing, not even continuing eruptions from the volcano.
I dropped anchor again, but could not find the sea bottom. It was time to assess the damage, and I started with the boiler room. Leaving Micah at the helm, I went belowdecks, where first I found Zeb, who had ridden out the storm in the galley. The two of us went together to the boiler room. The main drive had overloaded, causing an explosion in the mechanism that punctured the boiler. In turn, this sprayed boiling water throughout the room, killing Stuart immediately and scalding Ronnie badly. When we arrived, Ronnie was on the ground, mourning his friend, and clearly in a state of shock. We did what we could do ease his pain, but it seemed clear to me that Ronnie, too, would not survive unless he received more medical attention than we could give him. Zeb retrieved the medical kit and drew a syringe of morphine, which he administered to the boilerman.
When we made him as comfortable as possible, I took Zeb by the arm and maneuvered him back to the galley. I looked grim. “What is your assessment of the engines? Is there any way to restore power?”
He shook his head. “The boiler and the gearshaft are completely destroyed. We have no means of repairing either of them on board.”
“Aye, I was afraid of that. And the Spirit was never meant to travel far from shore, or she would have had a mast and sail for just such an emergency. As it is, her builders assumed she could be towed if needed.” I bowed my head. This situation was of my making, and my responsibility. I needed to devise a way home.
I considered our situation. We had no means of communication with the Middlesea Fleet save semaphores, which required daylight. There would be no rescue that night. In the morning, if we could make contact, we could either transfer to a naval ship, allowing the Spirit to drift freely, or, if close enough to Saint Kitt Islands or one of the neighboring uninhabited islands, we could attempt landfall first, then transfer to another vessel, hoping to return to rescue the Spirit at a later date. For the moment, we had food, though less than I had originally planned. I had ordered provisions for a meal for two dozen – that being the number of passengers plus the five crew members that would constitute our maximum load – but a number of tins had burst open in the melee, and, worse, we lost overboard our entire supply of fresh water. We had several days’ provisions for the four of us if we were stingy with rations, and some watery rum I used to pass around at the end of a successful cruise.
After checking on Ronnie one more time, Zeb, Micah, and I made ourselves rough beds on deck. We agreed on a watch rotation, with Micah drawing the first watch, I the second, and Zeb the third, and, with that, attempted to sleep.
I was very hungry and thirsty this morning, having not eaten for the better part of twenty-four hours. Micah divided our rations and served us a meager breakfast of cold beans and some rum, which eased but did not completely vanquish the hunger. Ronnie had made it through the night, but was passing in and out of consciousness. I thought morphine would be of greater help to him than food at this point, though that morning’s shot exhausted our supply. His eyeballs rolled back and his breathing became a little easier, so I left him to his narcotic-induced dreams.
The three of us then returned to the deck. I used the spyglass to search for land, but found none. Zeb confirmed that we were dead in the water, and lacked the material to repair the engines. “Thoughts, gentlemen?” I asked.
“We have three flares,” Micah said. If we can spot a ship, we can attract her attention.
Zeb said, “We could lash some of the planks of wood together and build a raft of sorts. I don’t know which way to travel, because we don’t know what direction the closest piece of land lies, but we may have to abandon ship at some point.”
“We can’t leave Ronnie in his condition,” Micah said.
I said the obvious: “As heartless as this sounds, Ronnie’s condition does not matter. He will not last the day. But I would rather take my chances on board the Spirit, where we are sheltered from the elements, than risk a trip in a jerry-rigged raft to travel in search of an unknown landfall. Surely some ship will steam by us – we can’t be too far out of the shipping lanes.” Hope was what we were reduced to.
The light fades for the evening, and I need to sleep again before my watch.
Aug. 20, 18__
Ronnie died during the night. I can only hope he was too far gone to feel much pain, for we were out of morphine. He never cried out, so perhaps God was merciful and let him sleep through the end.
After our daily ration, I conducted a brief service for him, and commended his body to the deep and his soul to the Lord. We could afford little time to mourn him, though. Each of us spent the day scanning the horizon, one with the spyglass and a second by naked eye while the third rested, rotating the glass every fifteen minutes and the watch every hour. No ships passed. We are all very hungry, but had to conserve what was left. Micah’s original allotment had allowed us two more days’ rations, but I suggested we stretch it to three.
We told sea stories to one another. The day passed.
Aug. 23, 18__
The past three days were much like the one before. We searched for rescue and found none. We finished our rations. All of us are weak with hunger.
One moment of excitement came today, when Micah thought he espied a freighter in the distance. Each of us took turns looking through the glass, but none could be certain we were not seeing what we wanted to see. In the end, we thought we could not risk letting a chance at rescue pass us by. Zeb lit the flare, and a brilliant light shot into the sky until it burned itself out. Was a ship out there? If so, would some crewman look in our direction during the few minutes the flare burned and see it? And would he know what he saw from so far away? These questions passed through my mind two dozen times in the next hour, and no doubt they went through my mates’ minds as well, but none of us would speak them aloud. We kept the glass trained on where we had seen the ship, but it never appeared again. Had it been there and did not see our distress signal? Or was it merely a phantom, constructed by our tired and desperate minds, willing it into existence? I knew not which.
Aug. 26, 18__
Zeb is dead. His rugged seaman’s physique had withered, and he alternated between periods of delirium and lucidity. Before he went, I begged his forgiveness for my lapses as captain. He smiled, or tried to, as much as his cracked lips would let him. I could not decide whether he heard my plea and forgave me, or condemned my soul to hell. I lacked the energy to repeat the service we held for Ronnie.
Micah and I also lacked the energy to keep watch. We would occasionally scan the horizon for ships, but both of us knew we were beyond the point of rescue. I was taught that suicide was a sin, but was it really? Were there not circumstances under which God understood and forgave? But then it mattered not, as I lacked the courage to end my own life.
Aug. 27, 18__
No more flares. Micah thought he saw a ship. Both of us shot a flare without consulting the other. When he saw me light the last one, having just shot his, Micah gave me a look of withering hatred before his face returned to its now-perpetual anguish. Did I just remove our last hope? Perhaps I did.
Aug. 29, 18__
The delirium takes me. When I am in its grip, I hear the whack-whack-whack sound of the steam engine coming nearer and nearer, but it never reaches me. I think Micah is gone. I have not heard him for many hours, but I cannot be certain, as I cannot keep my eyes open during the day. I pen these words a few at a time, at dusk, when it is cooler and the penetrating sunlight fades to give my brain small relief. Could he have slipped away, or is he even now continuing to wait for rescue, believing me to have gone first? Where he was once my closest friend, he now has chosen to remain away from my company. His distance magnifies my shame.
Aug. 30, 18__
The whack-whack-whack drives me mad. It is surely the beating of angels’ wings. Or those of devils. I try to remember how to pray, but the words escape me. Devil or angel, it comes for me. May it judge me by my intentions rather than my deeds.
The prior manuscript came to my attention after an expeditionary force searching for future potential Caledon colonies spotted the Spirit of Caledon bobbing in the ocean in early September. Captain Foster lay dead on in the bridge, his body having been ravaged by scavenging birds, his fountain pen and log beside him. – Rhianon Jameson
[Note: the entire story is available on Calameo.com. Click here - RJ]