SHERWIN MORRIS woke to the smell of .re. Heavy seas had been building all day, and now the merchant ship Patience was standing to, the ship set sideways against the wind and the sea swells that rocked her.
Sherwin could hear Captain Pierson on deck, the ordinarily good-humored ship’s master calling out, asking why the .re was still burning after the entire watch had been sent below to smother it.
Sherwin squeezed out of his narrow bunk, pulled on his doublet, thrust his cap onto his head, and joined the captain on deck. The night was thick with smoke, despite the strong wind that raked the ocean around them.
Recent hours had been troubling enough. The Patience had been dogged by an unfamiliar ship just visible on the horizon during the previous blustery day’s sail, an English ship, by all reckoning, but one unknown to the captain, and all day Sherwin had sensed increasing anxiety in the cargo ship’s crew.
But no one had anticipated this.
As soon as Sherwin saw the .ames licking through the grate over the cargo hold he felt sick. The Patience was three days out of Hamburg, the thriving German-speaking port. The ship was laden with wine, a notoriously .ammable cargo, but one that rarely caught .re, due to the skill of English coopers and the fact that there was usually enough briny leakage in the hold to discourage it.
Captain Pierson caught the look of concern in Sherwin’s eye, and he gave a nod. “Lend a hand there, Sherwin, if you will,” he said. The captain had agreed to train Sherwin—a youthful gentleman—in the .ne points of shipboard life, and in exchange Sherwin was going to pen a history of Captain Pierson’s voyages, with a publisher on Paternoster Row near Saint Paul’s already secured.
But his duties also included helping the crew, especially in an emergency. Sherwin joined the gathering of hands on deck, manning a pump to draw water out of the English Channel and down into the .ery hold. As the pump water spewed and guttered into the increasing blaze, Sherwin could sense the fear of death seize his shipmates, among them Risley, the ship’s cooper, with his hearty laugh silenced for the moment, and Wyman, the ship’s gunner, laboring beside Sherwin with a prayer to Lord Jesus.
The moment might have been the span of a few heartbeats, or it might have been a quarter of an hour.
Sherwin had no way of reckoning the passage of time.
And in a way he had no desire to. This was, after all, the sort of experience eighteen-year-old Sherwin had sought in signing on with the well-regarded merchant captain— that, and the chance to earn money and a portion of public notice with the adventure he was intending to publish.
There was, furthermore, a sense of companionship rooted in the effort to save the ship that captivated Sherwin. Ship’s boy and grizzled veteran alike, they all labored in a highly disciplined passion—more pumps brought into play, axes tearing at the decking, First Of.cer Timm calling out for the boatswain.
And then an explosion ripped the dark.
Excerpted from Peril on the Sea by Michael Cadnum.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Cadnum.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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