I, Walter by Mike Hartner

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***

The map said we were about halfway down the French coast when, just after grog and tack, the morning sun helped Crow spot a commercial trader carrying the French flag. This two-masted ship was considerably smaller than ours. Its flag was flying crooked and the sayles were in poor shape, and Crow reckoned it was a crew of local pirates, trading in stolen goods from Spain and Portugal in a boat not meant to ply hard or long trips.

My first adventure at sea turned out to be rather uneventful. We captured the ship with very little effort, as the crew didn’t put up much of a fight. The reason that they weren’t capable of defending themselves any better was that they’d been on the ocean several weeks longer than planned. And they’d been stuck in calm seas much of that time and had needed to ration food and water for the past seven days.

After feeding the starving crew, we placed the men in our hold and lashed the ships together so we could control both vessels while we sayled. Bart decided we would head for Northern Spain, which was nearly three weeks away. Releasing the crew of pirates to the authorities would earn us a reward, and whatever goods were on board would get us even more money. Bart told me to search the captured craft thoroughly and bring him a list of the inventory.

A chest of money was in the captain’s room, but it didn’t hold much coin. A logbook sat on a desk, but I ignored it for now and went below to the midship level. Clothes were strewn under the boards used for beds, but I didn’t find anything of real value. Whoever this crew was, they hadn’t done a very good job of trading, at least for anything worthwhile.

Toward aft, I found some larger boxes and some kegs. A few of these cartons contained very sparse foodstuffs, but most were empty or held cheap cloth. Some more boxes and kegs were stowed on the lower level: More cloth, of better quality this time, with bolts of linen of various dimensions, a few empty wine casks, a store of muskets and ammunition, and one small box with a pittance of coin in it that likely belonged to one of the crew.

Box by box, cask by cask, I moved slowly through the hold. A few hours later, deep in the bow of the boat, I heard a light snuffling noise. My first instinct told me it was a rat. I kept moving, knowing that ships had rats, and I hated the filthy vermin. But I heard the sound again, and this time I didn’t think it was made by a rat. So I investigated further, and hiding behind some boxes and shivering uncontrollably, was a girl about my age. This little thing was in tattered clothes, her long brown hair all over her face, and she looked considerably thinner than any of the starved crew. However, behind that tangle of hair and the dirt and ragged garb, I saw great beauty, and as I looked into her deep brown eyes, my heart skipped a beat.

I took off my pea coat and offered it to her. It took a few minutes while she fought against my help, but I was finally able to drape it over her shoulders. I hoped it would help her to stop shivering. It didn’t take me long to realize she wasn’t cold, she was terrified. I had to hold her tightly to prevent her from running off.

I asked her who she was and where she was going. She said something, but I couldn’t understand her. She began crying, and I put a finger to her lips to quiet her.

She started to fight me again. Even in her frail condition, it required quite a bit of effort to control her, since the harder I pulled the harder she resisted me. She didn’t want to come from her hiding place, and it was obvious that something or someone had scared her, and quite badly.

To remove her from behind the boxes, I had to pick her up and carry her like a sack of potatoes. She wasn’t heavy, but I had to stop several times as she was kicking at me with all her strength while flailing away and biting and scratching me at the same time. Thank goodness I’d given her my pea coat, for my protection. When we reached the top deck, I held her tight and stared deeply into her eyes. I don’t know why, but she relaxed and stopped fighting me. I clasped her hand in mine and slowly walked her across the plank to our boat.

I was wrong. There was something of considerable value on that ship.
I carefully moved her along the deck of our ship, and the crew was more than a little surprised to see a girl with me. I stopped at Bart’s door. She jerked her hand away from mine and smoothed down a part of her dress that the wind had blown up. When I brought her in to Bart, the look on his face was one of shock.
“She was hiding in the back of some boxes down in the hold,” I told him. “It was a fight to get her here, but I believe it’ll be better than leaving her on that ship. She doesn’t speak English, so I couldn’t even get her name.”
“What were you doing on that ship?” Bart asked her in a gentle voice.
She started speaking very fast, but I still couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying.
Bart said, “Sounds Spanish or Portuguese. We can find someone in San Sebastian who can interpret what she’s sayin’. I planned on docking there anyhow.” He smiled at her in a fatherly way. “Let me try and get her name.”
“How you going to do that?” I asked.
Bart pointed to himself and slowly said, “Bart.” He pointed at me and said, “Walter.” He pointed at her and asked, “Señorita?” and raised his eyebrows and opened his hand to her as a sign of friendship.
“Maria Castabel,” she said after a pause, but that was all she offered, at least that either of us could understand.
“Aye, now at least we know her name,” Bart said.
“Can I get her some food from Cookie? From here on out, until we find where she belongs, I’ll take responsibility for her.”
He waved us both off and out of his room. But as we were leaving, he asked me to tell two ensigns I knew to report to his office. One man was called Crab by the crew because he moved across the deck like a crab sidling from point to point. The other ensign was three inches taller than me and the spitting image of a willow tree, so tall and thin that I swear if he turned to his side he’d be invisible to most people who weren’t looking straight at him. We called him Fatboy just for the irony.
I hollered to them, “Hey, Crab, Bart wants to see you. You, too, Fatboy.”
They would be stationed on the captured ship until we made port.
Towing the boat made the journey a bit slower.
I took the girl to the galley for some food. “Eating for two are we now, Walter?” Cookie asked me, a smirk crossing his face.
“I found the poor thing starving. We’ve got to feed her and get her back to her normal health.”
One of the crewmen I’d seen only a few times but had never spoken to pointed to the girl and asked, “Aye, is that our dinner?”
He never saw the right cross coming that laid him out. As I connected with his jaw, I said, “Next time, mind your manners. That’s no way to speak about a young girl.”
Stunned, he got up, apologized, and we ate a meal of “surprise stew,” which was called that for two reasons. The first was because the meat was unidentifiable the way Cookie prepared it; the second because it was a genuine surprise that anyone would call a dish this watered down “stew.”
Following the meal, we went up to the midship area, where the large sleeping room was located. I showed her to a windowsill wide enough that she could easily fit on it. I also fashioned a makeshift hammock that I attached to the top beams next to the sill. An extra piece of sayle was all it was, but it worked quite well.
I motioned for her to climb onto the sill. When she did, I indicated to her to curl up and lie down to sleep. That night, and for the rest of the trip, I slept next to her. The first two nights, I remained in the hammock. But by the third night, I was restless and not getting a good night’s rest. I moved behind her on the sill. She said nothing and fell asleep easily, as did I.
Neither of us could understand the other’s language, but gestures worked. The quarters were cramped, yet she was protected and there was not a chance of anyone’s attacking her without going through me. In truth, the odds of that were slim, since I learned later that Bart had put out a warning for the crew not to touch her.
By the end of the first week, the two of us were getting to the stage of incidental body contact during our sleep. We were always fully clothed when we went to sleep, so it didn’t seem to bother her, and I enjoyed being close to her. I slept better in those few weeks than ever before.
After an early, pre-dawn breakfast–two days into my third week at sea–we docked in San Sebastian, the northernmost port in Spain. As the crew raced to market, Bart and I took the girl to the sheriff, who I prayed spoke English.
I heard the sheriff’s gasp when he saw her face.
I asked if he knew of her father and where she lived. He said in English, “Yes, her father is the Don of this whole area. He is patron to all of northern Spain, and he lives only two hours from here.”
I asked if he could find me some horses so I could see she got home safely. Bart nodded to him, and he took care of it immediately, his deputy saddling up three of the most beautiful horses I’d ever seen. When I asked about them, he called them quarter horses.
The sheriff volunteered to guide me to what he called a hacienda. I followed him, with Maria seated on a horse next to me. We rode through the rolling green hills of this section of northern Spain. For the first half hour, there was grass everywhere. However, for the next hour and a half, the grass gradually surrendered territory, eventually losing out altogether to scrub.
We were two hours into the trip when we came across a man of considerable stature sitting on a horse. He held up a musket and signaled for us to halt. He then motioned to us to come toward him. As we got closer, he saw the sheriff’s badge or recognized Maria, I didn’t know which, and gestured wildly for us to pass. Maria grabbed the reins from me and kicked her horse in the ribs. It galloped in front of the sheriff and me, and she soon reached her father’s hacienda just as he appeared at the door. She jumped off the horse and embraced him, as the sheriff and I followed her into the yard, but at a respectful distance.
The sheriff and I heard her chattering rapidly to her father as we dismounted. While the father was taking a good hard look at me, the sheriff said, “Maria is telling the Don that the ship he originally sent to bring her from the British islands was attacked and captured by pirates, who took her prisoner and stole the merchant goods on the other ship. They’d stayed out in the ocean to avoid capture by ships along the coast, but then the winds stopped and the ship couldn’t move, and when the food started to run out, they were forced to come closer to shore. But it was too late; their food had been gone for about a week when your ship captured theirs. The pirates were too weak to fight, and you alone were responsible for saving her.
Her father is now telling her that one of the crew from the original boat Maria was on had sent a letter to him saying that everyone on that voyage save him was dead, including Maria. The Don is telling her he never gave up hope, not wanting to believe she was dead. Now, as you see, he is weeping, and so is Maria.”
After several minutes, the father and daughter gained their composure and approached the sheriff and me. The Don was a few inches taller than I was at the time, and he walked with an air of authority and confidence. He talked to the sheriff for quite a while and then turned to me. He spoke in broken English that the sheriff helped him with.
“My name is Juan Carlos Manuel Rivera Castabel. My family has lived on this land for several hundred years. I’m prepared to give it all to you, because of your heroics in bringing my daughter safely home to me. She is worth more than all of my land and everything else I own combined.”

I put down the quill and wiped my brow. Unless a person has been in a similar situation, it’s impossible to understand the emotion associated with a statement such as that. Such emotion, such love, such caring.

I dipped the quill once more, and remembered.

I looked at the man and then at the sheriff and said, “Please tell Mr. Castabel that I’m honored and touched by his offer. But taking responsibility for his daughter was the very least I could do. And returning her safely to him has been an honor. I do not want or need his money, because doing the right thing is its own reward.” I wondered where all that came from, and bowed.

Don Castabel bowed to me in kind and came forward to shake my hand. He gripped it tightly, and then hugged me and kept repeating the word “Gracias.” Even I understood its meaning, and at that moment it was I who was close to crying. I was able to fight off the emotion, but it wasn’t easy.

He bade us all inside. His hacienda was a one-story construction, generous in length and considerable in width. The dining room was huge, bounded by the kitchen on one side, three glass windows on another, a hall to the servant’s quarters on a third side, and a wide opening to the main living area. The quality of the furnishings and the tableware only further confirmed that Juan was an aristocrat, and that if I ever wanted to be worthy of his daughter, I would need to work very hard.

We ate a hearty lunch with him before I announced it was time for me to return to my ship. Maria gave me a long hug and brief kiss and said, “Gracias.” The moisture in her eyes and her soft lips made me believe that she might feel something for me. I knew I felt something grand for her. She turned to the sheriff and he translated, “Please come to see us again as soon as you can, and you must let us show you our thanks for what you have done.”

The Don watched with a wry smile. He insisted that I carry a pouch and a letter back with me. How was I supposed to refuse this man? I waited for him to write the letter, then bowed and shook his hand, and with the sheriff translating, I said, “I promise to come back as soon as I possibly can.”

The sheriff laughed as he translated Don Castabel’s reply. “You’d better. For both me and Maria.”
On our way back into town, it seemed that we were racing the sunset. Fortunately, we arrived just before dusk turned to dark.
As I was about to head to the ship, the sheriff told me, “Don Castabel has insisted, no matter where you stay in this town, or where you eat, I’m to inform the merchant to put the charges on his bill. He has instructed me to tell you that you’re to be given a great deal more money than what is in that pouch. You obviously aren’t aware of how much you have affected him by doing the honorable thing.”
I returned to the boat and helped load on another week’s worth of fruit before nightfall halted the crew’s labors. Before I went to my bed, I stopped at Bart’s office.
“Aye, Walter.” He paused, obviously expecting me to say something. When I didn’t, he asked, “Well, how did it go?”

To Be Continued….

Walter Crofter was born into Elizabethan England.
In a country and a time where favor and politics were both deadly, can an honest boy stay true to himself?
Especially given his family background?

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Genre – Historical Fiction/ Romance

Rating – PG

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