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September 1835
            In the summer of eighteen-thirty-five Alexander Vallincourt turned sixteen. Most people who knew him just called him Alex. He was a rambunctious teen that lived alone. His mother died giving birth to him and his father, Ludwig Vallincourt was believed to have been killed by a polar bear just before Alex turned fifteen. Ludwig was the tallest, strongest man Alex had ever known up to that point in his life. Alex once witnessed his father lift a man, who easily weighed three hundred pounds, and toss him off their front porch like he was no more than a sack of flour. It seemed the man was drunk and looking to get back thirty dollars Ludwig won in a poker game. After hitting the ground, the man ran off like a dog with its tail between its legs. 
        Ludwig had made sure that Alex had his own bank account with enough money that he would never have to work a day in his life, providing he stayed in Churchill and didn’t move to a more expensive place. At the time Alex had not a clue just how long beyond the norm his life would be.
        The day Alex first decided to head to the Churchill pier after his father’s passing, the sky was cloudless, the air cool with a slight breeze that made things feel a bit chilly. It was not yet fall but the approaching season was making an early presence known, nonetheless. The water of Hudson Bay was calm, smooth like a sheet of glass. 
        It was eight in the morning when Alex stood at the end of the pier. Size wise he was taking after his pa, standing almost six feet tall, and his weight must have been pushing a hundred sixty pounds give or take. He considered himself well-built thanks to a lot of winter wood cutting and carrying. He had thick black hair that now needed a good clipping, and a lot of the time blocked the view of his bright blue eyes. He was wearing his favorite pair of pants with a couple of holes that Ludwig would have patched if he were still around. His shirt was made of wool, and atop his shaggy mane was a fur skin hat that his father had fashioned for him. 
            The town of Churchill, Manitoba sat quietly behind Alex. It had been over a year since he had ventured to the pier from his small house at the far outskirts of the town. After Ludwig’s passing, a greatly depressed Alex shut down. He rarely ventured into town, doing so only when he needed supplies. He avoided his friends to the point of not answering the door when they, or anyone else, came knocking. His view of life had gotten so bad that at one point he had seriously contemplated suicide. He had given up on life, basically given up on himself. The grief of losing his father had taken everything from him, leaving him pretty much an empty shell. He felt like he was dead, like he just had not stopped breathing was all.
            One night, after he figured the town had basically gone to sleep, he sat on the porch thinking about his father. Then, as always, he fought against letting the memory of his father fade. It was close to midnight when a shadowy figure emerged from one side of the house. He was not spooked or scared, figuring if something bad happened to him, oh well. 
        A girl his age named Maggie came to the front of the two steps that led up to the porch. Before his father left Alex had his eyes on her. She was good looking, always cheerful, and very friendly. They used to talk a lot; some people would even have said they were seeing each other. That night, as he looked down at her, he began to wonder why in God’s name he had abandoned his relationship with her. In that moment he considered himself to be a real jackass.
        There were no words exchanged as she stood still, taking in his good looks that she had never ceased admiring. In her mind she was struggling to find a way to snap him out of the confined existence he had isolated himself within. What do I have to do to change you, Alex? She sighed as only one thing came to mind. Please don’t hate me.
        Without a word she walked up the steps, stood in front of Alex, and slapped him harder than anyone had ever struck him. Then without a word she sat down next to him, leaned over, and gave him his first kiss. 
His mind was running wild with just about every thought a person could have. What the hell was that? He did not think he could have spoken if he wanted to. He was not sure what struck him the most; the first time anyone had slapped him that hard, or the first kiss anyone had ever given him. It did not take any thinking to know which he liked more.
        “Alex, you’ve got to come back to life,” Maggie begged. “I miss you.”
        He found his tongue. “If you miss me, why have you taken so long to come to me?”
        How dare you! She stood and slapped him again. 
        He pretty much figured that was the end of his thinking about adding anything else to his last comment. 
        “Damn you, Alex,” Maggie fumed. “I haven’t waited till now. I’ve knocked on your door every day since word reached town about your pa. Every night I waited in the shadows hoping to see you out here like tonight. Wake up, Alex. You’ve forgotten everyone who you ever cared about, whoever cared about you. You have to let it go.” 
        She kissed him again and ran off, disappearing into the darkness. She had delivered a message, a wakeup call. As much as he wanted to dismiss her words and dig himself an even deeper hole, she managed to get through to him. The next day he went into town. In a way it was like doing so for the first time. He was quick to renew old friendships, and to his joy old friends carried on as though he had not been absent at all.  
        Now, months later, as he stood at the end of the pier he thought once again of his father and the last time they had come to the pier together. Ludwig had brought him there to spend, what they could not have imagined, would be their last moments together. Alex thought back to that day, remembering his father’s rough voice brought on by a lingering illness. Things were to the point where Alex was getting concerned about his father’s health. Ludwig insisted that he would be okay, and that some fresh sea air would help make him feel better. Alex’s thoughts took him back to that spring day in eighteen thirty-four…
        “We’ll be gone for only a few months, son,” Ludwig said as he looked down the long pier. He had a full beard that he grew each time he went to sea. He wore a red plaid shirt and thick pants that were tucked into the tops of high-sided boots. He looked at Alex. “There will be plenty of hunting time for us when I get back. So, I expect you to practice up on your shooting.”
        Alex could not help but beam a broad smile. “I’m almost as good a shot as you already, pa.” 
        Indeed, Alex was, and known to be such by just about everyone in the town. All shooting competitions within fifty miles of Churchill were easily won by father and son. The last name Vallincourt had become synonymous with being a crack shot. 
        “You’re almost as good, but not yet.” 
        “Someday you’ll agree with me.”
        “Yes, I most likely will someday, Alex.” Secretly he already knew that, but if he agreed with him then the boy might not work as hard to improve his shooting abilities. He faced his son. “Now remember if you need any money go to the bank. They know who you are. They’ll give you as much as you want, no questions asked. If you need anything else…”
        “I know, pa, go to Mister Gray,” Alex interrupted. He felt sad. “I’ll miss you, pa.”
        “I’ll miss you too, son. But it isn’t like this is the first time I’ve gone to sea.”
        “But each time seems longer,” Alex moaned. For him time seemed to stand still while his father was gone. “I get lonely.”
        “Lonely? How’s that possible with as many friends as you have?”
        “They’re only my friends because they know we have more money than any of them.” Alex sighed. “If we have so much money why do you have to go?”
        Ludwig ruffled his son’s hair. The boy usually hated when he did that, but today Alex was willing to make an exception. Ludwig did not want to tell his son he was leaving again because of the joy of sailing and the thrill of hunting. You wouldn’t understand that some men need to do what they enjoy doing. “I’m leaving because I feel obliged to Mister Yuekert for bringing your mother and me to this place.”
        “Haven’t you paid your debt to him many times over?”
        “Some debts never end, Alex. When you get older, you’ll understand. There are things more important than money.”
        Alex could not imagine that being true. How can there be something more important than money? Maybe gold, but I’ve only seen a small amount of it once, so I’m not sure. But he remembered how men in the town had been fixated by the mineral, and damn near came to fighting because of it. It was as if the precious material had the ability to cast a spell over the men, making them unable to think clearly, or at all.
        Father and son embraced in a loving hug with Alex not wanting to release his father… 
        As Alex’s thoughts drifted back to the present, he looked out over the bay. At three hundred yards from shore a thick veil of fog ran the length of the shoreline for as far as he could see. The fog looked like the impenetrable walls of a fortress, daring anyone to approach.
        “Get out of the way,” a man’s gruff voice sounded from behind Alex.
        Alex turned while stepping to the side, making way for a rapidly approaching man pushing a cart. Moving at a full head of steam the man was huffing deeply as he passed. The two wheeled cart was piled high with kegs, so much so it was a wonder the man could see over the top of it. But a true, straight line he followed along the length of the pier, coming to a stop at the foot of a gangplank leading down from a ship named Benjamin Gray. Almost at once a group of men, twelve in all, descended the walkway, grabbed the cart’s contents, and then ascended the plank to the main deck where they disappeared through doorways on the ship. Within minutes the cart was emptied. The same man grabbed the cart’s handles, turned it about, then hurried back across the pier past Alex, before turning between a group of merchant stores. 
        Half a dozen ships were moored to either side of the old wooden pier. All but one of the ships were without gangplanks that would normally lead from the ships to the wooden walkway. The other ships had gangplanks lying on the pier next to them. From his vantage point Alex could see a great deal of activity on or near the ship with the gangplank. 
        The sea weathered, three mast schooner Benjamin Gray, was moored to the end of the old, pier. In its day, the ship had parted waters on many bodies of water. Its aging wood creaked as men moved about it. A crew was busy loading provisions into the ship’s hold. A rough looking lot, the men were experienced sailors. They knew well every inch of the vessel they had sailed upon so many times past. Each of them, to the man, had at some point questioned why they were about to set sail so late in the season. They wondered where the owner’s reasoning had slipped away to. But, admittedly, each of them did not think much past the offer of a bigger-than-normal payday upon their return. The thought of extra money in their pockets outweighed any risks as they saw things. 
        Standing on the pier at the end of the gangplank, the ship’s owner, William Gray along with three of his associates were indulging in conversation. Mister Gray was getting up there in age, looking every bit of his seventy-five years. The hair on his head and his friendly mutton chop beard had long turned snow white. His eyesight was only as good as a thick pair of glasses allowed. It had become impossible for him to walk without the use of a cane. The walking stick being used on any given day was part of a vast collection of canes, purchased as souvenirs while visiting other ports around the world. He owned as many as thirty of them, all unique by one characteristic or another. Despite his frailties and health issues, he always made mention how he was doing better than those who had passed on before him. He claimed there was nothing healthier than a swig of whiskey both morning and evening.
        One of Gray’s friends, Rodney Nesbitt, had served as William’s accountant for as many years as anyone could recall. He was the man William most confided in, despite most always arguing with him. Yet Rodney remained the most trusted man William had ever known. Seemingly always present with William, Rodney was a thin, ill looking man. His head was skeletal looking with eyes sunk deep in their sockets. He sported a mutton chop style beard that was mostly gray in color. At sixty years old, he looked much older. He hated the cold. Even on that day he was dressed in layers of clothing. 
        Another of the men, Oliver Hager, was a retired ship captain, serving now more as an advisor than anything else. It was not even sure if he could be considered William’s friend, since they seldom saw eye to eye. He was comfortable being at odds with Gray almost always. He secretly relished the thought of William breathing his last. He honestly believed he would be in William’s will, believing that the Benjamin Gray would someday be his.
        The last man, Joseph Wilcott was nothing more than a friend to William. A beer drinker known to be drunk more times than not, he was also quite wealthy. Wealth was the tying bond between their friendships. They argued over money constantly, while drinking beer in their favorite pub. 
        “Up to now I’ve managed to keep your creditors at bay, William. But please tell me, what am I to do when your ship doesn’t make it back before the ice sets in?” Rodney said.
        “Come now, Rodney, have a bit more faith in me,” William said, shaking his head slightly. The accountant was the last man William wanted to have doubting him.
        “Faith has nothing to do with it,” Rodney sighed. “Luck is what we’ll need if things don’t work out.” He was the epitome of pessimism. 
        “You’re starting to sound just like everyone else around this place,” William said. “This voyage could put us back in the clear.”
        “Could is a big word,” Rodney cautioned.
        “William, Rodney is right,” Oliver concurred. “You have a lot at stake here.” He really hated to, and rarely did, agree with Rodney about anything. 
        “Oh, for God’s sake,” William snarled. “We’ve been over this a dozen times. They’ll be gone a month, two months tops.”
        “I wish I had as much faith as you,” Joseph said. “I personally think it’s madness.”
        “You won’t think it’s madness when I go to the bank and make that large deposit,” William predicted. “None of the men who signed on thinks it to be madness.”
        “They only have the exurbanite wages that you promised to pay them to lose,” Rodney quipped. “They haven’t a ship and a company to lose.”
“I won’t lose the company and you know damn well there’s a new ship being built.”
        “By the looks of some of those mates, you’ve got a rough crew on your hands,” Joseph suggested.
        “A bunch of drunkards I’d say,” Oliver said. “In my days at sea, I’d be damned if I’d trust a bunch such as them.” He would be the last to admit that during his years as a captain he had sailed with a far more questionable lot, more than once. 
        “You all do know these are the same men that sail for me each year?” William questioned. “They’re all well-seasoned, as is the captain.” 
        “A bit pricey bunch as well,” Rodney pointed out.
        “Good God,” William sighed. “It’s experience I bought. Surely, it’ll be needed this time of year. When the north winds start blowing, a captain and crew of their standing will surely be an asset. As for the trip itself, I can’t lose. If the ship returns yet this year, I get the last price for furs. A higher price than all season to be sure. If it returns in the spring, I get first price, which sets the standard for the rest of the year. Either way, I’ll get top dollar. Besides, everyone who has ever set sail from this port knows this time of year they’ll have more ice to hunt from.”
        With one hand held tightly to the top of a duffle bag draped over a shoulder, Alex approached the four men. He eyed the men, pausing for a moment as he questioned whether he truly wanted to do what he was about to do. He thought about if he was willing to make the required sacrifice; to give up his life on land over that of going to sea. One would have thought that such a decision would have been made long before he had come to the pier. Just as he had done for so long about his pa, he was once again mind screwing himself. “I have to do this,” he told himself. 
        “Excuse me, sirs, could you tell me where I might find Mister Gray,” Alex asked, not even slightly concerned that he had interrupted a conversation. He knew all too well that had he just stood there the men would have ignored him. After all, children were best seen but not heard. Or worse yet, he would have talked himself out of going forward.
        William Gray looked at the youth who was nearly as tall as himself. He was quite certain he had not ever seen the kid before. But admittedly his memory was not as clear or as sharp as it once was. He was thankful to have close associates who unknowingly kept his thinking on subject. “That would be me, son. What can I do for you?”
        Being polite, Alex removed his hat as he reached out to shake hands with Mister Gray. “My name is Alexander Vallincourt, but you can call me Alex.”
        William’s face brightened. There were a lot of things that he had forgotten of late, but the boy’s last name rang true. He shook Alex’s hand strongly. “Ludwig Vallincourt’s boy?”
        “Yes, sir, that would be me.”
        William had never seen Ludwig’s son, but had more than once heard Ludwig boasting as to the fine shot his son was. As he regarded Alex, he could see a resemblance to the youth’s father. He could see the boy was well on his way to becoming a tall, stout man as his father had been. He looked at the three men. “You gentlemen recall the unfortunate incident during the spring voyage last year?” 
        “Yes, dreadful,” Rodney said. Having a weak stomach, he never wanted to know all the bloody details, sparing himself of what surely would have been ‘dreadful’ nightmares.
        “I do not recall,” Joseph admitted. He scratched his balding head in puzzlement.
        “The polar bear attack,” William said. “Ludwig Vallincourt was attacked by a bear and went missing, presumed dead.”
        Joseph’s eyebrows rose as he remembered the incident. “Oh yes indeed. He was never found. Everyone presumed he was taken by the bear.” He shook his head slightly. “It was a dreadful way to go for the man.”
        Rodney coughed as if to clear his throat. He nodded, signaling to William that Alex was present.
        William looked at the boy, and then faced the men again. “This is Ludwig Vallincourt’s son.” He looked quickly at Alex. “What did you say your name was?” His memory was not as sharp as it once was. He often forgot simple things like buttoning his pants in the front or wiping the corners of his mouth after eating.
        “It’s Alexander, or Alex if you prefer.”
        “His son Alex,” William said, looking back at the men. He faced Alex again. “I never had a chance to say anything to your mother.”
        “My ma died when I was born,” Alex said.
        “You’re doing well with this youth, William,” Joseph said.
        William glanced at the man who was uncharacteristically sober. “Joseph, don’t you have an appointment at the gin mill?” Then he looked back at Alex. “So then, who’s taking care of you now?”
        Alex set the duffle bag down. There was the sound of eating plates made of metal within the bag striking against the wood of the pier. “I’m taking care of myself.”
        “Are you now?” William questioned. “How do you pay for your needs?”
        “My father was well to do,” Alex said. “I inherited his money and property.”
        “Yes, I remember your father having a bit of wealth,” William said. “God only knows why he wanted to work for me. I could never figure that out.” He paused for a moment. “I recall somewhat of a battle in court about your inheritance. It seemed that all was about lost for you. The government seat was about to send you packing. Then, out of the blue, an attorney came to your rescue. No one even knew where that man was from, not that it mattered to you, considering the outcome. Fortunately for you things came out well.”
        “A judge said I was old enough to tend to my own affairs,” Alex said.         “That’s why I’m here. I really don’t need any pay. I just want to take my pa’s place on your boat.”
        “It’s a ship, not a boat,” Rodney quickly pointed out. “There’s no room for a boy.” He had no children of his own. As far as he was concerned there was no time for anyone who was not an adult.
“I can do my share of the work,” Alex declared.
        “Run along, boy. There’s no place for you here,” Rodney urged. He gestured with his hands as if pushing the teen away.
        “I’m a good shot with a rifle,” Alex added, ignoring the man. “You could use a good shot to kill the seals before they get into their holes.”
        “Run along, boy,” Rodney repeated.
        Alex looked sternly at the man who insisted he did not belong there. Alex had taken a clear disliking to him. “I believe I’m asking Mister Gray for a job, not you.”
        Joseph looked appalled. “The nerve he has, talking to an elder like that.” In the moment he would have enjoyed having the boy shipped off to some mining camp deep within Canada.
        “He’s got spunk and a genuine toughness. I like that in him, or any man,” William said. “He reminds me of my younger self. So, son, do you know much about hunting for pelts?”
        “Not as much as many men, but my pa told me how it’s done,” Alex answered. “That’s why I said it’s better to shoot the seals while they’re still on the ice. You might get better results than standing over an air hole waiting for a seal to surface.”
        “Yes indeed,” William said. “I believe I like you, son. Rodney, hire him on.”
        Rodney gasped. “You can’t be serious?” 
        “I most certainly am,” William asserted. “He’ll be the captain’s cabin boy.”
        Rodney stepped in front of William. “Haven’t you taken on a big enough risk on this voyage as it is? Now you want to look after a child as well?”
        “I’m not a child,” Alex countered. “I can look after myself.” He only wished there were a way for him to put Rodney in his place.
        William chuckled. “I believe you can, son. The matter’s settled. Get on board and find a place to stow your things.”
        Rodney huffed loudly. He grabbed Joseph by an arm as he began walking away. To be certain a stop at a tavern was for them, where no doubt a stiff shot of whisky would soon be theirs. 
        With a smile as wide as Hudson Bay, Alex bounded up the gangplank. He took three hurried steps upon the ship’s deck before his feet found a pool of water. Faster than a blink, his feet slid out from under him. With a stinging thud he instantly found himself lying on the deck. After a few seconds of catching his wits he rose painfully upon his elbows. In truth he was hoping no one had seen his clumsiness. But as he rose, he caught sight of a man’s legs within a few yards ahead of his own feet. His eyes traced the man’s form upward to where he came to be looking at Captain Yuekert.
        The captain, in his mid-fifties, was a tall, stout man with a grizzly beard, bulbous nose, above which was a pair of piercing eyes. He was smoking a pipe that had at one time belonged to his father. He was wearing a long dark blue coat with seven brass buttons down the center of the front. His visor cap had gold braids wrapped around the whole cap, indicating that he was the vessel’s captain. 
        Alex stood as quickly as possible and straightened his clothes as best he could. “I suppose you saw that?” 
        The captain moved the pipe to one corner of his mouth. “Indeed,” he said with a deep voice. “Are you okay?”
        “Yes, I believe so,” Alex answered. He could feel himself blushing with embarrassment.
        “It’s been some time since I done that trick myself. I can’t say I miss it.”
        Alex rubbed both elbows in turn. “I can see why.”
        “More like you can feel why,” Yuekert said with a chuckle. “Yes well, who might you be?”
        Alex’s face brightened as he reached out a hand to shake with the captain. “I be, I mean, my name is Alexander, but if you a mind too you can call me simply Alex.”
        The captain shook the youth’s hand. 
        “Young man why are you aboard this ship?”
        “Mister Gray hired me on.”
        The captain frowned. “He did?”
        “Yes, as your cabin boy.”
        The captain’s eyes closed into a squinting look as he glanced at William Gray who was still standing at the foot of the gangplank. “Cabin boy, huh?”
        “Yes, sir.”
        “On what other ship have you served as cabin boy?”
        “This would be my first. In fact, this is my first time on a boat.”
        “Ship,” the captain quickly snapped. “This is a ship, not a boat.”
        “What would qualify you to be a cabin boy?”
        Alex thought for a moment. The only thing he knew for sure was that he did not know for sure what it meant to be a cabin boy. He looked down at the wet deck. “I rightly don’t know, sir.” He snapped his head back and again looked at the captain. “I just thought that because my father served on this boat, I mean ship, I could…!”
        “Your father?” the captain interrupted.
        “Yes, my father.”
        “His name, boy.”
        “Ludwig Vallincourt.”
        Turning his head, the captain gazed at Alex sideways. “Ludwig was your father?”
        “He was, sir.”
        My God how the years have passed. Ludwig would be proud of calling such a fine-looking young man his son. “He was a good man. Dreadful misfortune what happened to him.” The captain squared off with Alex and pointed to his left. “Okay, aft you’ll find a mop, young Mister Vallincourt. Take it and clean this water up, least I experience your unfortunate entrance. It wouldn’t go over so well at my age. When you’re done with it, go below and find a place for yourself. Then go to my cabin and make it ready for my stay.”
        “Make it ready, sir?”
        “Yes. Alex, if you’re going to be a cabin boy, my cabin, my comfort, my needs, will be your responsibility.” He took a step forward so he could lean down to come face to face with the boy. “Unless you think it would be too much responsibility for you to handle.”
        Alex shook his head. “Oh no, sir. I can handle it indeed.” At that point he looked as confused as he felt. “Ah, sir, since this is my first time on a boat, I mean ship, might you tell me where this aft is located.”
        “God almighty,” the captain hissed. He stepped up behind Alex and placed his large calloused hands on the boy’s shoulders. He turned Alex until he was facing the rear of the ship. “That is aft. The stern of the ship.” He turned Alex again. “That be the bow. Fore. The front of the ship.” He turned Alex again. “Port side as you are facing the bow.” He turned Alex yet again. “Starboard as you are facing the bow. You are standing amidships. The center of the ship.” He turned Alex in rapid succession. “Aft. Stern. Bow. Fore. Port. Left side when facing forward. Starboard. Right side when facing forward.” He stepped in front of Alex. “Any questions?”
        “Where do I go to relieve myself on this ship?” 
        “The head is below deck, aft.”  
        Alex was sure the captain must have noticed the puzzled look on his face.
        “Go to the stern and go down the steps. It will be right at the bottom.”
       “Sir, what might the steps be called?”
        “Steps. What else would they be called?”
        “I wouldn’t rightly know, sir, as this is my first time on a ship. Admittedly it’s a confusing time thus far. I’ll tend to the mopping now, sir.” Alex hurried off to fetch the mop.
        The captain smiled. His thoughts took him back to a time when he knew Ludwig Vallincourt. He looked at Alex who now was fumbling with untangling the strands of the mop. “You’re a spitting image of your pa, boy,” he said quietly to himself. He turned to walk down the gangplank, intending to have a talk with William Gray.