“This inquiry into the fate of the schooner Tripoli is in session,” said the man on the bench. “Call your first witness, Mr. Lee.”
Lee addressed the man in the witness box. “Please state your name for the record.”
“Amos Puckett, sir.”
“Mr. Puckett, were you aboard the schooner Tripoli on or about August 19th?”
“Yes, sir. Captain Ferguson hired me on as a seaman apprentice; my first voyage, sir.”
“And where was Tripoli bound, Mr. Puckett?”
“Our holds were filled with rice bound for Jamaica, sir. Tripoli ran rice to the Caribbean, and rum back to Galveston. The crew joked we had to make speed to Galveston before the skipper drank up all the cargo.”
“I see,” Lee conserved. “All of you?”
“All before the mast, sir,” Puckett answered.
“But not the officers?”
“Only had three, sir: the Captain, the mate, Mr. Highsmith, and Mr. Gunter, the bosun. We all said there was a fourth officer; John Barleycorn, the Captain’s best friend.”
“I see,” the lawyer answered. “Is it fair to say, then, that Captain Ferguson was a drinking man?”
“No, sir,” Puckett answered, “Most sailors are drinking men. It’s safe to say Captain Ferguson was a drunk.”
Lee looked inquiringly at the man sitting in the judge’s bench towering over Puckett. The man frowned and said, “Since this is an inquiry and not a trial, I’ll allow the statement.”
Turning back to Puckett, the lawyer continued. “Please tell us what happened on August 19th..”
“We left Galveston at dawn. The barometer was falling with seas building from the southeast across the Gulf of Mexico. We were in for a blow and we knew it. The Captain was in his cabin, drunk already I suspect. We were on a strong port beam reach running south along the Texas coast. Mr. Gunter suggested we shorten sail, but Mr. Highsmith said the Captain had ordered full canvas. He wanted to outrun the storm and use the circulating winds as long as possible on the reach Southeast to Jamaica. By then, we were almost starboard rail down with building seas.”
“Please go on.”
“There was “bang” like a cannon shot and the foremast topsails blew out. We had to get aloft to clear the wreckage, but the torn canvas and snapping sheets made a fool’s errand of that especially for us. Tripoli righted slightly. Mr. Gunter jumped on the rail and grabbed a ratline to go topside and clear lines, but as God is my witness, a wave crashed over the rail and took him over the side. I never saw Mr. Gunter again.”
“So Gunter was lost. What happened next.”
“Mr. Highsmith ordered us to strike canvas, but then, the Captain staggered onto the deck and ordered Highsmith to stand down. Before they could argue about it, the mainstays gave out; the mainmast snapped off, The broken mast was swept over the side taking the remaining stays with it, sloughing Tripoli broadside to the seas and snatching Highsmith’s leg. I remember screaming as it dragged him over the rail. I still have nightmares from the sight of him disappearing into the sea.”
“You’ve now lost Gunter and Highsmith.” Said Lee. “What did Captain Ferguson do?”
“I don’t know,” Puckett replied. “I turned to with the remaining crew trying to cut through the stays with fire axes. But every wave threatened to wash us overboard and we couldn’t cut through them. I remember we lost two sailors overboard in the next couple of minutes. And then, a huge wave smashed in the forward hatch cover flooding the hold. The men manning the pump disappeared over the side with the hatch cover. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The hold was filled with rice, water swells rice. In minutes the planking started giving way. The Tripoli was finished. It sank in minutes.”
“And you survived? You are the only survivor I understand. What happened to the rest?”
“I couldn’t say. Staying afloat in hurricane waves is a hard thing to do. After what seemed like an hour, I saw a floating hatch cover, swam to it and tied myself to it with some pieces of trailing line.”
“Was this the same hatch cover that collapsed flooding the hold?”
“No,” Puckett answered. “This was the larger main hatch cover. It must have been pushed off by the expanding rice.”
Lee looked thoughtful. “Is that possible?”
“I don’t know sir. I just know that I was on that hatch cover for three straight days and nights. The wind decreased and shifted to the west on the second day. I was in trouble then because a west wind would push me further into the Gulf. I’ve never been religious, but that’s when I started praying.
Grinning, the attorney asked, “And were your prayers answered?”
“Not right away, I guess,” Puckett answered. “I lost consciousness. For the next three days, I drifted unconsciously and dreaming on that hatch cover. I would swear on a stack of Bibles that two men were on that hatch cover with me, one in black, one in white. They were using my belly for a card table; and I’d swear, they were playing poker for my soul!”
“Preposterous!” exclaimed the man on the bench.
“You were hallucinating!” asserted the attorney.
“Maybe,” Puckett answered, “ It didn’t feel like a hallucination though. It felt real.”
“Hallucinations often do.”
“Anyway, on the third day, I drifted ashore at Indian Point on Nueces Bay. The town of Indianola had been destroyed, but I’d been saved. I crawled off that hatch cover, kissed the sand and thanked God.”
“Have you anything else to add?”
“Yeah,” Puckett replied, “I never saw any of the others again. You’ve said I was the only crew member to survive. You’ve said I was hallucinating when I told you two men played poker for my soul on that hatch cover. But the wind changed and brought me ashore instead of farther into the Gulf. I survived when the town of Indianola didn’t.”
“Where are you going with this?” Lee demanded.
“You don’t know what happened out there,” Puckett said, “I don’t know what happened out there, but, it seemed real to me. What makes you so sure it was a hallucination?
See more of Clabe’s stories on his Author Page here.
CLABE POLK is the author of The Detective Mike Eiser Series and The Adventures of Harry Morgan Series of crime/action novels, as well as The Road to Armageddon. He has also written numerous short stories and flash fiction pieces that occasionally appear in e-magazines and anthologies. He enjoys woodworking when not busy working on his new science fiction series or adding new books to the Detective Mike Eiser Series.
He brings a deep love of natural sciences and more than thirty-seven years of professional environmental protection and public safety experience to his writing.
He lives near Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, two daughters, and the family’s Cockapoo named Annie.