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Episode Two: A Riddle in the Sand

by Don Wa11ace
Illustrated by Jan Adk1ns

It is possible to nap in the bow of an open boat, and even sleep through the cold slap of spray from the occasional wave, Matthew R0ving had discovered. But it is next to impossible to dream about candy without waking up starving, hands patting pockets for the stash that ought to be there.

Matthew conducted his search with eyes shut. Only when his numb fingers felt a promising bulge did he allow himself a peek—hoping to find himself back in an Optimist Pram in the most boring sailing school ever to set forth on Narragansett Bay.

One glance at Abby, gray-faced at the tiller of this leaky wooden skiff—the Rattler—told him more than he wanted to know. She looked tired, and he felt guilty that she'd been steering their boat for the past hour across the short, choppy waves of the Bay while he had dozed.

"Hungry?" he asked, contritely.

"Pray do not taunt me, dear brother," said Abby. "Thou knowst full well how our bellies gnaw this past year—like chained hounds."

"Well, nothing like some Hershey's Kisses to quiet this puppy," he said, patting his stomach. Looking forward to blowing her mind with the miracle of modern candy, he thrust a hand into his pocket and held up a long, green, skinny, utterly pathetic onion. He stared in horror.

Abby cried out: "Do give us a bit of thy leek, Matty—do!"

"Be my guest." He looked away so as not to watch how eagerly she chowed down. But her hunger, along with her raggedy shirt, made him wonder how poor they truly were.

"That was heavenly," Abby said. She pointed with the last bit of leek. "And now here's the mail-packet, the Hannah." Big and fast, its one mast and large triangular sail bending under a stiff breeze, the sloop was on a course to cross their own. Swift as a bird it approached, until they could see the captain standing easily on its steeply tilted deck.

"Abe Whipple's the second-best sailor in Narragansett Bay," Abby remarked, but Matthew figured out that the best had been—still was—their father.

When only ten feet separated the two boats, a sailor threw a wet rope that slapped Matthew in the face; he barely managed to hold on. A second later they were bumping alongside.

"Nicely done," drawled white-stockinged Abe Whipple from the Hannah's poop, to which Abby replied: "We're still R0vings, ain't we?"

Whipple laughed. "Well, if you're still R0vings then perhaps you'll be interested in this: the King's revenue sloop, the old Gaspee, is back. Up to her old tricks, stopping all boats, searching and confiscating anything that isn't nailed down. They say this new Prime Minister in London would tax a codfish for his scales."

Abby shrugged, then gestured to Matthew to hand over the envelope. He hesitated. "We're selling all father's books?"

Abby thrust an oar against the Hannah and pushed off. "The trunk will be packed and gone by the time we get home, no thanks to you."

"His logbook, too?"

"What's done is done," she said, shortly.

Thinking of the Log back in the attic of The Quaint Misbehaving Home for Wayward Salts, Matthew felt a mounting panic. We've just sold my only way back to the future!

"Matty," Abby said, wearily. "Tis a letter of credit from the bookseller, paying something to the merchant we owe for father's last cargo. Not enough, but 'twill keep the wolf from the door."

"Make up your mind," said Whipple. "I won't miss the tide."

"And why should we be interested in this Gaspee?" he asked, stalling desperately.

Whipple paused, then unexpectedly leaned his arms on the stern rail and for the first time gave Matthew a look of true interest. "Your father often talked of a little trick he'd like to play on the revenue sloop. At a spot quite near here, in fact."

Matthew found his eyes drawn to a faraway point, where a faint white line indicated waves were breaking. It looked very much like where his sailing school race of the morning had gone awry. Whipple followed his gaze. "Tell me," he said. "When you were dodging about the sandbanks with your father, did he by chance ever show you a secret pass that cuts across Namquid Point?"

"No," said Matthew and Abby simultaneously.

Whipple smiled. "That's because it doesn't exist. 'But what if the Gaspee was to discover such a passage?' your father asked. And I had no idea what he meant. Do you?"

"Don't ask me," Abby said. "Matty's the one for riddles."

He shrugged. "Well, I'm clueless too. I mean, unless he wanted to. . . ." Before he finished, Whipple put a finger to his lips and winked.

The captain stood up and turned his back. "Lookout," he called. "Sorry to trouble thy sleep, but prithee tell me what sail that is off the port quarter." The embarrassed lookout scrambled up the rigging to get a view. "Two masts—a big 'un—coming for us, beg your pardon."

"The King's sloop herself," said Whipple, a stern frown creasing his face. He glanced at the pennant trailing from the top of his single mast. "We can still outrun them—if you're ready to give up your letter." With a start, Matthew handed over the heavy packet.

After casting off, Matthew persuaded his sister to let him steer. "Head inshore to keep clear of the Gaspee," she croaked, before curling up on the little bench-seat to nap.

The Hannah left them behind. The Gaspee, on the other hand, loomed closer, a larger and heavier two-masted topsail schooner, with three gunports along her black side. Not a lot of cannon, but then again, the Hannah was unarmed.

He looked again at the sloop. She ought to be faster than the Gaspee, yet seemed unable to shake her. And there was Abe Whipple, standing at the stern, eyeing them through a telescope. Eyeing him, not the British ship. Almost as if he expected Matthew to reach under the seat for the oyster knife kept there, to run his thumb lightly across the worn blade—to glance back at the telescope's eye to make sure he was being observed—and to draw it across the backstay, the line whose tension kept their mast upright. Which is just what he did.

After that, everything had happened very quickly: the mast tumbling down, Abby buried by the fallen sail, kicking and shouting, the longboat from the Gaspee putting out and in one well-practiced move taking their skiff in tow, while two short burly sailors vaulted over and dragged Matthew and Abby aboard. Now the chase was on. Sailors hung from the ratlines studying the Hannah's sails and handling, betting on her cargo and already planning what they would do with their share. To Matthew it seemed obvious that unless she could clear Namquid Point, she would be overtaken.

"Ready the bow-chaser, Cheever," said a balding, pock-marked man. Evidently the captain, he had until now been letting an arrogant teenager in brass-buttoned finery do the talking.

And what a trash-talker that Nicky Blunt was! When Abby and Matthew were tossed on the deck at his feet, he'd laughed and said, "Why, it's Abigail and little Matty! After that show of boat-handling, I hope you don't mind my saying that the two of you don't make one-half the seaman your father was."

"Shove it, Nicky," said Matthew. Without a change of expression, a nearby seaman smacked Matthew above the ear with a fist. "Midshipman Blunt to you," said Nicky languidly. "Captain Dudingston? Here we have an example of that ungoverned colonial temperament Lord North so abhors."

The dour Dudingston turned a mottled red face toward Abby and Matthew. "We shall make a sailor of him nonetheless. Cheever, bring out the Ship's Articles when you have a moment."

"Capital idea!" Nicky said. "Make him a Navy man! Force the smuggler R0ving's son to collect the King's tax!"

Dudingston frowned. "He's not. . . ."

"He is. Rance R0ving's own minnow."

Abby approached with small steps and clasped hands. "Do not impress him, Midshipman Blunt. You know he is Mother's babe."

Haughty as a peacock, Blunt enclosed her hands with his. He smiled. "The Navy will be his Mother now."

A flash and roar—the entire conversation had taken place while the sailors manhandled a bright brass nine-pounder to the leeward side, rammed cloth powder cartridge and ball, primed the touchhole. A doughnut of bitter smoke flew back in Matthew's face. He wiped his eyes and squinted at the Hannah. She seemed to have fallen off her course; clearing the point was out of the question now.

Yet Dudingston seemed almost disinterested. "Stand by to fire the starboard battery soon as she bears, Cheever." The gunners raced to run out the three six-pounders, then waited, bent low, squinting along the barrels, matches held high in hand.

Blunt clapped Captain Dudingston on the back. "A pretty plum! And half of what she carries is yours. That ought to ease your retirement."

"She's jibing, sir! Making straight for a channel, sir!" shouted a lookout.

"What channel?" demanded Dudingston. "Bring up my charts, Cheever. And that damned smuggler's book as well!"

Suddenly Matty was grinning. He'd guessed what cunning Abe Whipple was up to. Then a hand gripped his shoulder and he found himself face-to-face with a flushed Tarleton Blunt. "Does the channel go through or doesn't it?" he demanded. "You know—damn your eyes, tell me!"

Matty nodded, not even having to fake alarm. Tarleton Blunt's pale blue eyes narrowed. "Which is it?" He reached for his dagger, flourished it under Matty's nose, then pressed the chilly flat of the blade against his cheek.

Matty cleared his throat. "It closes," he croaked, giving into his fear so that a tremor shook his body. "You can't get a canoe through, unless it's full flood."

Tarleton Blunt twisted his head around to shout at Dudingston. "Drive on! The channel's open, as sure as this whelp's a lying dog." Dudingston hesitated, then gave the command: "Hold your course." A minute passed. Another. "Now we've got you—"

The boast died as all hands saw the Hannah give a twitch and spin around on a fresh tack. "Port battery," swore Cheever, running to the other side. "Bring her up, Sitwell, bring her about now," cried Dudingston. But anyone with eyes could see, just under the ebb-tide's chop, yellow fingers of sand reaching out for them, fingers that the Hannah had slid between, and evaded. Then the Gaspee struck, and though Matty flew like a rag-doll half the length of the deck, he still came up grinning.

Tide ebbed, time dragged, the Gaspee heeled over inch by inch. When it became evident that no amount of kedging would bring her off until the flood six hours hence, Lord Tarleton Blunt spared Dudingston the further embarrassment of his company and took his departure with a still-cursing Cheever in the cutter. He never even glanced at Matty; however, some chivalrous instinct did lead him to request that Dudingston release Abigail in the Rattler. This time there was no opportunity for an emotional farewell—the master, Sitwell, shoved Matty into a work detail, shifting gun-carriages to the stern to see if that would bring her up by the bow. His last sight of his sister was of her pulling on the oars, staring back at them with a terribly blank expression—the look she got before a soccer game. Seeing him, she punched a fist into the air.

Eventually Sitwell told them to quit. There was nothing to do but wait for the tide to rise. Half the crew went below to sleep. The six men left on duty found comfortable perches and dozed standing up. Matty started to curl up on the deck, but Sitwell sent him down with a curt, "Think yer escaping?" Lost in the utter blackness of the lower deck, he finally laid down at the foot of the ladder. At least he could see the stars from the open hatchway.

One moment he was shivering, wondering how he could survive until the morning, and, if he did, the thousand nights of servitude that awaited him; the next, he was roused from a deep sleep by a loud hail. "I am the sheriff of the County of Kent, God damn you! I have a warrant to apprehend you, so surrender!"

Dudingston's sharp irritated voice cut through a general commotion. "Stay clear, man—your warrant's no good on a King's ship at this or any hour of the night."

Matty sprang lightly up the ladder and cautiously poked his head out of the hatch. A bright flash and a loud bang: Dudingston tottered back from the railing, dropping a lantern and a pistol, giving a moan of such distress that Matty put aside his fear and resentment and hopped on deck to help.

"I have killed the rascal!" crowed a loud coarse voice. There was a clamor at the waterline, and Matty saw, through a gunport, at least half a dozen longboats glide forward and butt up against the schooner's flanks. Matty couldn't believe his eyes: they were being attacked by twenty Indians in feathered bonnets and at least an equal number of black men!

It was a short, relatively bloodless fight. The outnumbered British were clubbed and shoved back down below-decks. Squirming away to avoid joining them, Matty felt himself grasped by the collar, then menaced by a marlinspike-wielding intruder. But the fierce black face suddenly smiled.

"Why, here's Matty!" cried the familiar voice of Aaron Briggs, a young African-American who'd also been stuck in sailing school. "What are you doing here?"

As Matty looked about him, he saw some of the most respectable merchants of Providence with blacked faces, as if in imitation of Aaron—although Aaron had also applied the burnt cork.

The boarders, many of whom had evidently taken a dram or two to steel their courage, now broke into the hold in search of British grog. Matty followed a smaller but no less purposeful group wearing Indian bonnets into Dudingston's cabin, where charts and ledgers were being gathered, and chests and trunks searched—not for plunder, but for information.

"Take the signal-book, burn the tax records," said the chief, calmly, in the voice of Abe Whipple.

"The logbook?" asked a flamboyant pirate. Matty pushed forward. "Give it here!"

Whipple looked at the pirate, in reality good old Turpin Smith, and shrugged. "Just remember, you'll hang if found with it," he said.

Matty took the heavy volume in his arms and found a quiet place behind a chest on the cabin floor under a sputtering lantern. His fingers handled the stiff pages shakily, flipping back by month, then week, and at last day by day to the day. His eyes fastened on the first entry, midnight, June 9th, and after that would not, could not be disturbed by the commotion in the cabin, not even when it became dead calm inside and out. On paper the hours passed so swiftly that when the cabin filled with a bright unwavering yellow light, Matty thought dawn had come. He started a new entry: "Sail sighted. Could easily have outrun us, but hove to when we made private signal provided by Squire Blunt. Her Captain saw his error too late, and in trying to run was subject to our raking fire. . . ."

An avid crackling sound breached Matty's trance and he raised his head to behold an inferno lapping at the cabin windows. The ship was afire! Whirling, he tried to open the stern windows, but a net of flaming ropework crashed heavily down over them. Matty took an involuntary step back. To gather himself for the plunge through the glass and flames, he took another backward step—placing his feet together momentarily on the open Log—hurled himself forward. He felt a searing pain in his shoulder, cried out as he burst out into space, and opened his eyes to find himself sprawled on the dusty floorboards of Mrs. Wydontia Gaway's forbidden attic, the open chest lying tipped on its side, while his Mom anxiously called his name downstairs with a panicky note in her voice that put a twist in Matthew's gut and made a single word form on his lips: Father.

Don Wa11ace is a novelist, essayist, and editor whose childhood was split between books, boats, and the outdoors. Both his father and grandfather served in the U.S. Navy. The father of a 14-year-old boy, Don started The Log as a way to bridge the Gameboy generation and the world of his father and grandfather.

Jan Adk1ns is the author and illustrator of over 36 books for children and adults, many of them about the New England seacoast. He has received dozens of awards for text, design, and illustration but, more important, he knows the waters over which Matthew R0ving sails: his chart of Narragansett Bay currents is still part of the Eldridge Tide & Pilot Book.