Chapter Two: Bow Lines
I am not afraid of storms
for I am learning how to sail my ship.
Louisa May Alcott
John Patton rose early, eager to be underway. The tide was paused at full, fog hanging low, patches of stars showing through to promise a clear day. He stood quiet on the deck, considering. A nod to Yemoja for a good run to home, and for the safety and protection of Miss Wren, his crew, Noah Pratt, the girl, and the cargo. Miss Wren was sitting low and heavy in the water. He’d use the motor and the tide to get out of the Maurice to the bay. He surveyed the deck crowded with the carefully secured cargo of steel and wood, the crates of custom machine parts. If any adjustments needed to be made, the time for it would be while they were still in the Maurice, not out on the chop of Delaware Bay. No room on deck for mistakes. Still, he was of a mind to get a few sails up once he reached the open water of the bay.
Miss Wren’s tugged hard against her docking lines. “Hang on darlin.” Captain John whispered. “We’ll be goin in jest awhile.”
Ms Wren came out of the Rolling Mills, up in Marcus Hook Pennsylvania.
Built in 1885 to work the Delaware River and her tributaries. Ironed hulled, shallow drafted with a swing keel, she could run light and easy onto a soft beach for a load of lumber or sand as easily as she would pull the pilings from this commercial dockage once she was loaded and the tide was calling to her.
John Patton had gotten his lady off the always shifting sandbar at Teaches Point in 1903. Raw deckhands and day workers had been loading her with Jersey sandstone through the timber port in her bow, Captained by a white man owner, upriver without a pilot or local knowledge of the mischief the Cohansey River could summon without apology. John Patton had gone, along with some of his men from the Works, to sort it out for them. They found the Captain and crew soaked through wet, huddled on the bank under a greasy tarp, passing bottles. Sitting scared and defeated while the wind and tide rolled the lady over with her timber port gaping open. Persimmon Trees barely more than saplings, used as temporary mooring lines had been ripped from the fragile bank and were floating still tied off to ship’s cleats. She had laid her mast down into the Cohansey to rest, her belly full of rocks holding her in place and there she waited. John Patton could see even in the poor light of a midnight nor’easter the iron hull was elegant, fairly new, of the style coming out of the Hook. She wasn’t going any further for now, and there was nothing to be done but get this called himself captain and crew off the riverbank and take them downriver to the Marina to sort themselves out with their own. Then get Mae straight to Jack Haskell. Captain Patton and Miss Wren knew that night, that he and his men would return and tow the scuttled gal to Division Boatworks where she would be healed and restored.
No one had much noticed or cared, when Jack Haskill bought the boat for salvage, and it was towed to Division Boat Works. No one but Mae Patton knew Jack Haskill had bought the boat with her and her husband John’s money. Jack Haskell signed the salvage boat over in 1905, along with yet another apology of how business had to be done.
John Patten had his workers curve the lady’s stern, add a gas engine, masts, and renamed his fifty eight foot long and twenty one foot wide, now twin masted mistress, the schooner Miss Wren. Proudly lettering and painting her name on the stern himself. It did not concern him whether sailing into New York Harbor or from the backwater port of Millville to the Cohansey that most on shore thought they saw a pretty piece of the Haskill Cannery Fleet, the one with a full set of white sails and darkies for a crew.
A stretch of pink in the eastern sky announced the morning, the mist lifting off the water, the crew on deck.
”Bow Lines.” boomed Captain John Patton, holding the wheel with his left hand , watching the bow, holding the stern line with his left hand, looking down river, checking the position and action of every person on deck, listening to every sound, looking again to see what Jess at mid sections was about. Within minutes the remainder of the lines tossed to the deck, being coiled and Miss Wren’s bow caught the just turned tide out into the channel, propelling her forward and downriver towards home. Both hands on the wheel , a smile on his face, John Patton, Captain and owner of the schooner Miss Wren.
Sophia Connor loved the feel of her boots standing on the deck of this schooner. Sophia was up on the bow, it was no longer night, not yet day, and the fog was swirling about. The water was ink black, as were the marshes, the trees lining the riverbanks to either side. Brief bits of light from the dark silhouettes of houses where those still on solid ground were waking to their day. The engine chugged along strong and secure, the smell of fuel and exhaust mixing with the heavy sweetness of the marsh, the fresh and salt water mix in the tide which was pulling them out into Delaware Bay. A loon called. Sophia’s eyes teared. Another loon answered from the opposite bank downriver. Sophia smiled, letting all behind the wake of Miss Wren go.
Sophia was warm inside a thick wool hooded dark blue cloak that covered the top of her new leather boots. Miss Janie had certainly kept her word. Showing up with Jackson dockside Sunday morning in a horse drawn wagon scolding and fussing the entire time about being late for church, demanding to the boys on board she meet face to face with the Uncle of Miss Sophia Connor, traveling on what she had been told was a boat with a niggah and his boys. Her Uncle Noah had left the galley to speak with the woman. Confirmed that it was true. The schooner was in fact captained by a colored named John Patton of Haskill’s Landing. The boys were yard men from the boat-works there. He had said the Haskills of New Riverton trusted this man and his boys. Sophia left below in the galley with Captain Patton, poured him the last of the coffee. The hatch was open and they both could hear every word.
“Girl. Listen to me. Captain Patton spoke. You is not ever held countable for what comes out of someone else’s mouth. Jest be careful with your words. Now let’s get get topside and get this sorted out.”
Miss Janie had brought two large trunks, one heavy enough to require the handcart and swing pulley to get onto the deck. There were also two wooden crates, and a sturdy wheeled child’s wagon useful to haul everything from dry goods to kindling. Sophia had not recognized any of it but the child’s wagon. As the boys began quickly securing the goods to the deck for transport, Miss Janie had opened one trunk to pull out the cloak, wrapped the shivering Sophia into it and kissed her on the forehead, while talking out loud to Jesus, Mary, and Elizabeth on Sophia’s behalf, yet another one last time, then climbed into the wagon grousing at Jackson and was gone.
Leaving had been that easy. Out here on the river, with the smell of the bay strengthening as they rounded every reach, each curve bringing more colors from the increasing sunlight, more blue showing in the sky blazed with oranges, yellows and pinks.
Sophia walked to the stern, smiling at the boys whose hands and eyes quickly found rigging in need of attention. Captain Patton held the wheel lightly, Noah Pratt stood quiet beside him.
“Thank you both. ” Sophia said clearly, linking her arm through her uncles and grasping his hand, while looking to Captain John Patton. Noah tensed, Sophia did not let go, and Captain John Patton sailed his lady towards home.
Noah Pratt was glad to be going. The girl had arrived to the schooner early saving him the task of going to look for her, and seeing Louisa. He should love his sister, he knew that. He did not love his sister. Staying on board for the girl meant he had missed a stay at May’s, but his need of a woman hadn’t run hard through him for years now. Just as well that he had stayed here with the cargo. Haskill’s meant for him to see it safely delivered back to the cannery. Same thing with the Girl. Noah would have to stay on board. His niece was a pretty little thing, and all grown up since he had last seen her. What a surprise it had been Sunday morning when a wagon had arrived with two fancy trunks with the girls things, one needing two men and the handcart to move, as well as a sturdy pull along child’s wagon, a wooden crate of good smelling greenery, and two coloreds in a hurry to get to church. Sophie seemed to be surprised to see them too. Close to tears. He remembered the colored woman from back when his sister was doing well for herself. Made a real fuss about John Patton being a darkie. Then she was calling him right off the boat and giving him a get to about his ‘carin and lovin that girl the way he should, him being her very own flesh and blood. Sayin that in takin her away he was savin her and to make sure she got a life worth savin.’ “Uppity old nigger.” Noah had said too loud. Sophie quietly appeared silently, taking his hand in hers and squeezing hard enough to hurt, hissing in his ear words he never forgot, while holding onto him like she loved him. Neither of them had known the other when she had came to the boat asking for him. Finally they were out on the water, and Noah tensed once again as this girl was grabbing hold of him again here on the deck of the boat, only this time she was whispering something gentle.