Authors: Theodore Taylor
It was a terrible lie, Rachel knew.
Even though there was a place below Jockey Ridge named Nag's Head, which supposedly got its tide from the lantern-toting ponies, not a word of truth was in that land pirate story. The men would double over in laughter when they heard it. Anyone in their right mind who wanted to lure a ship ashore would put the pony on the beach, not inland on Jockey Ridge.
The only time there was murder and some theft was long ago with a Spanish ship. But the vessel wasn't called ashore and the Spaniards had asked for it They got butchered for their impudence.
There was also the
that wrecked off Chicamacomico, which everyone called Chicky, in 1861. It carried a cargo of top hats. Now, who wouldn't steal a top hat, especially if it threatened to float away? Anyhow, everyone on the Banks had a top hat from the
Even John O'Neal had one, Rachel remembered, and by no means was he a thief.
Now and then, there was a little purloining of wrecked cargo when whiskey was involved. Some of it mysteriously just never reached
which was what the wreck auction was called. But, laughed the Bankers, and Rachel agreed, if everyone in the United States had done no worse than steal top hats and some whiskey, moderately, the country was in good shape.
The people, like Rachel and Ben, were mostly Methodist and God-fearing. In their veins, one family to another, was some British, some Swedish; Irish, Portuguese, German, not to mention Arab. Most of it, to be certain, was castaway blood.
Until he died, Mr. Joshua Dailey was schoolmaster down at Hatteras village and Trent. He had floundered ashore in 1837. In the bad winter of 1856, when the sounds froze up, Mr. Herbert Oden had come bobbing ashore in a pork barrel off the
as naked as the moment he was born. Ben's own paternal grandfather, Captain Issac O'Neal, from Plymouth, England, had floated in on a spar, clutching his drowned first mate by the hair of his head.
Rachel knew it all because she'd been born down near Hatteras, daughter of another castaway.
The first people that came to the Banks, after the Indians were pushed out, planned to run cattle and did so for a while. There were still some wild cattle and half-wild sheep around. Soon, though, it was more profitable to be wreckers. In fact, more than a hundred years ago a wreck commissioner was established just to supervise all the hulls that crashed. But the menfolk, just to survive, had to be a little of everything from farmer to boatbuilder, fisherman, and hunter. The women did the rest. As a bride, Rachel had washed, carded, and spun her own wool.
True, also, was that many of the houses were built completely of ship's timbers and lumber from the sea; furniture from ship's cabins. If a cargo of red paint washed ashore, houses would be red for years; if puncheons of Jamaica molasses came in, there'd be sweetening for com cakes for a long time to come.
The sea giveth and the sea taketh away, as John and Guthrie were good examples,
The Outer Banks hadn't been much to look at in the last fifty years, especially since the damn Yankees cut down most of the trees on the sound side in the Civil War. The blowing sand threatened to shove everybody into the sounds if the tide did not accomplish it first. On more than one night, Rachel and Ben had listened to seawater gushing under the house; gotten up in the morning to find the high-ground garden ruined. Only collards could stand that water.
It was certainly no place to raise crops, although across the sounds on the mainland the earth was black and fertile. Com grew seven feet high over there and Rachel often thought about what life might have been had she been born thirty miles west.
There were still some wide-bladed windmills around to grind grain brought over from the mainland, traded for fish. But most were falling in disuse. People were buying meal instead. She even thought the Banks were showing signs of becoming modern. Telephone lines were hooked between all the lifesaving stations. Telegrams could be sent. The Atlantic &Â North Carolina railway ran to Morehead City; Norfolk & Southern into Elizabeth City. Steamships of the Old Dominion Line plied the sounds, whistling hoarsely. There was actually a gas engine banged off in the sounds the year before. Perhaps someday the men would do more than fish or make rescues.
And there was a rugged beauty to the Banks that she acknowledged, one that Ben didn't appear to see. On calm days, there was a quiet over the flats and dunes; over the ridges on down toward Buxton; a feeling of great peace and contentment.
Although mainlanders laughed at it, there was some scraggly vegetation from around Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk on down to Ocracoke Island. Real thick woods around Buxton's high ground. There was gnarled big holly and the scrubbier yaupon with scarlet berries; deerberry, wax myrtle, cedar and dogwood, loblolly pine. Wild flowers grew in some places; wild coffee fern and wild rose. Long grass waved in the silent marshes and ponds, interrupted by foxtails, spike rushes, and mincing heron. Roanoke Island, over in the sounds, was bestowed with much green; muskenong grapes big as walnuts.
Because the Gulf Stream ran so dose, hitting head-on with the Labrador Current off Hatteras Point, there was even the miracle of palmetto and yucca, a few orange trees on south; hibiscus, too. Spanish moss hung in the limbs as it did in South Carolina and Florida.
Here and there were squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, and whitetail deer. There was an abundance of gulls and fish hawks; canvasback ducks, redheads, buffleheads; even Canadian and snow geese.
If only the sea was gender and there were no wrecks.
Rachel looked east, wondering what was happening down on the beach. Ben had disappeared over the dunes.
HE SUN WAS OUT
strong now and the day was sparkling. The wind had died to a mere steady breeze, setting around to its usual prevail, west of south.
As Ben walked along, he thought about Reuben but firmly believed his brother was still down in the Caribbean, safe enough from any gale blowing up here. He didn't come ashore very often, but when he did Ben would try to make him talk about how it was out there. He didn't talk very much at that and for some odd reason always wanted to work in the garden patch when he got home, if it was spring or summer. Ben couldn't understand it, but Reuben would contentedly hoe and sift the sandy loam in his fingers; even put some in his mouth.
The story of his that Ben liked best was the one of his first trip, when he was still a boy of thirteen. On a bark out of Norfolk. They ran into a storm four days from last landfall at Cape Henry, and Reuben was so sick he thought his belly button would come up.
They ordered him aloft to help furl the topgallant sail, which was more than midway up the mast, beneath the skysails and royals. It was night, raining, and the big square-rigger was heeling over. He went up the forerigging and got to the foretop. He was so green he didn't know how to get around the running rigging but finally made it to the topgallant yard.
Two old sailors were already up there and ordered him to go out on the yardarm, but he was too scared to go and hugged the mast. One threatened to knock him off, saying an awful cussword. It was sixty feet to the deck. Reuben wouldn't budge, though they gestured to kill him, but did go up a second time that night, not knowing anything about what he was doing. Ben admired him greatly.
Yet Reuben would say, "You stay with your mama. That's not a good life out there, Ben."
Well, was there anything good about the Banks for a boy of twelve, finished school? Why couldn't they all realize what he wanted to do was go to sea, then come back sometime and be a surfman? A keeper, someday. Confession was good for the soul. Yes, be like John O'Neal.
He'd even named his boat
Me and the John O'Neal.
He'd found it in the spring, half sunk, floating down the cut by Gull Island, over in the sound. He'd waded out to his waist to bring it in. It was a small shad boat, homemade, stoved in on the portside. Not the eighteen or twenty-six footers, with a foresail added to a sprit mainsail and jib, that the Creef and Dough families built up at Roanoke Island. But it looked almost like them, with a round bottom, square stem, and sharp prow.
She didn't have a name or number. So he'd claimed it. He painted her new name on the transom after replanking the portside.
Shaving a timber for a mast, he finally got his hands on some old sails and recut them. All summer he'd sneaked off to teach himself to sail. He knew hod would have been raised if his mother had found out about it, but she didn't know a solitary thing about
Me and the John O'Neal.
Or so he thought.
As Ben mounted the last rise the sea opened up before him, tossing rays of sun back into the sky, flinging up glitter from the troughs. The breakers were still high, and the inshore water was murky with sand, but the ocean was flattening out and by afternoon would be blue and peaceful again.
He stopped and let his eyes sweep the horizon. No sails were out there, not even a plume from a steamer. But the ships that had ducked into Hampton Roads, up at Norfolk, would be weighing anchor and pressing on south by sundown. It would be back to normal.
But it just didn't seem possible that this was the same water of last night; that it could go devilish crazy in a few hours; smash ships like toys. Then become gentle and almost smile toward land. But he'd noticed, from time to time, as he'd run along the edge of the surf, that the waves sometimes tried to reach for him. Or maybe he was just imagining it.
He looked out across Heron Shoal. Water was tumbling over the bar, as it always did. But there was no sign of a ship's grave out there. Not even a piece of broken stick to say that the
had joined the ghost fleet there the day before.
It wasn't always that way. Sometimes the ships grounded in moderate weather when some mate went to sleep. Before it turned heavy again, the men would go out in boats to take off sugar or salt; molasses or turpentine or coffee. He had once seen them float hundreds of barrels of molasses ashore. Then again, there were those like the
that sank without a trace except for pieces that hit the shore. Or for survivors like the one now in his own house.
He wondered about her for a moment; if she was indeed British; wondered if she'd come around. He didn't like to think about his mother having to tell her that her parents, if that's who they were, had been claimed and had gone leeward, which was the Banks term for death. "Loo'ard" it was pronounced.
He looked far south. The wreckage had bobbed that way during the night on the surging tide, and, as always, people were on the beach sorting through the debris; helping the surfmen. He could see several wagons and mules; some ponies and carts.
He went in that direction along the littered, storm-gullied sands, Boo Dog winding ahead; sniffing at dead fish and old, feeble gulls that had fought the gale; giving up to flutter down and go loo'ard.
It took about thirty minutes to make the walk and on arriving he saw the usual forlorn piles of jagged wood and tangled, frayed line; ripped sails; parts of hatches and coamings; mattresses; trunks; jugs. Anything that might float or wash.
Nobody was saying much. They never did. They went quietly about gathering the flotsam, as if they were all workers at a funeral. He was hoping to hear someone say, "Heerd you toted 'er home last night, Ben." By now, everyone knew there was a survivor because news on the Banks, word of mouth only, traveled like fire up a powder train. However, Filene had probably already told them everything. There wasn't much else to say.
He did feel better, though, when Mark Jennette came up to ask, "How's she farin'?"
Ben thought it best to quote his mother: "She's holdin' her own."
He went over to where the wet, stained clothing was piled up, not far from canvas humps that covered those not so lucky as the "teetoncey" girl. Although he felt squeamish about it, he took a stick and began turning coats and pants over. He couldn't find a small shoe although there were larger ones and boots.
Filene, who was perched on the Heron station cart, having a pipe, shouted over, "You run to the station, Ben, when that girl can talk. Mebbe she can identify some bodies?" His tobacco smoke was rich and strong.
Ben yelled back that he would and called for Boo. They went north along the beach.
About two o'clock, the girl stirred and came out of it slowly as if groping through wool, opening her eyes to the ceiling of old narrow boards that were bubbled with cracked paint. Some smoke stain was up there, too. She just stared up.
Ben looked up, too, wondering why she was doing it.
Then she frowned and swallowed, licking her lips. They were dry and chapped.
"How do you feel, child?" Rachel asked.
The girl stared at Mrs. O'Neal for a long time. She tried to take a deep breath, but that seemed to hurt down along her ribs. She winced.
"You're safe, child. You're on dry land," Rachel said. Then added to Ben, "She still don't know where she is. Who we are."
The girl slipped back under with a sigh, almost as if she didn't want to know who they were.
"I'll put some yeopon on," said Rachel. It was holly leaf tea.
Mostly, they drank yauponâwhich they pronounced "yeopon"âtea because they couldn't afford the other. There were a lot of yaupon bushes scattered about the Banks. The tea men used twigging knives to chop it up, then dried it out between hot rocks in a hollow cypress log. Mainlanders sometimes laughed at the Bankers drinking "holly" tea. But it was never very wise to laugh at a Banker no matter what he was drinking. Bankers would not stand for foolishness or insults.
Ben went out to the kitchen to wash his face and comb his tangled hair. Then he changed his shirt and put on knickers and galluses.
Rachel watched with some interest but said nothing about the preparations. She had an idea that Ben wanted to look good the next time the girl came around. To mention it, though, would cause an explosion. She did smile before turning away. Maybe Ben wasn't quite the ruffian after all. But for several years she'd had some advice to give to mothers on the Banks. Never try to raise a male as a female. They'd go the opposite way, sure as sundown.