A Fisherman's Hands

A story for children about Gloucester legend, Howard Blackburn.

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Chapter Three

The dim light of a sultry, grey dawn promised no hope of relief for the two half-frozen fishermen. Heavy snow-filled clouds hung low, blotting the horizon. The schooner was nowhere to be seen. There was no sign of land, and nothing to offer a clue as to where it lay. Temperature seemed to be falling still. The wind continued to rage. It churned and whipped the mounting, snow-capped waves ever higher, washing them over the sides of the dory, threatening each time to engulf the small boat and all that it contained.

Howard cast a despairing glance at his dory-mate, feeling a responsibility. He could see that Tom was bailing for his life with deliberate, almost mechanical motions. Frost and icicles glistened from his eyebrows and half-grown beard. He staggered and slipped on the ice that was building thicker each time a smothering wave subsided. Howard wondered vaguely about the young manís family. It was not a thought on which he cared to dwell. So, he turned once more to his own task with fiercely focused attention, refusing to allow his mind the chance to stray again.

With the wind still rising, and waves lashing their helpless dory, the danger of overturning became ever more real.

"We need to head her into the wind! Letís see if we can lay her to a drag!" Howard shouted to his mate.

Tom, numb and speechless, gestured and nodded his reply. So, Howard went about smashing in the head of one of the trawl buoys. He added an iron winch for weight. With dory-head facing into the wind and sea, he reasoned, they might be able to bail without so much danger of being swamped and pulled under.

He prepared to cast his drag over the side, removing his thick, warm mittens and dropping them under his seat. But, almost at once, they were swept away in water splashed over the side to where Tom was in charge of the bailing.

With his bare hands, Howard knotted the line, then bent to cast the keg overboard. But, leaning over the side nearly filled the small boat with another swirling torrent of ice, snow and water.

He glanced at Tom, frantically bailing to stabilize the new danger. This time he was using a small, shovel-like scoop.

The strain on Howardís nerves had reached its breaking point. "Youíre making about as much headway with that as you would bailing Gloucester Harbor with a tin dipper!" he shouted impatiently. The next moment his impatience turned to desperation. "Now, look what youíve gone and done! Youíve gone and tossed my mittens out with your ridiculous wooden scoop!"

Whether Tom was in fit condition to reply, or whether he simply did not hear or understand did not matter. The mittens, designed to protect a sailorís hands from the ever-present danger of frostbite, were going , going . . . Gone!

Howard watched helplessly as they spun and bobbed, appearing and disappearing in waves churning with froth and foam. He watched them twirl over and under . . . under and over, farther and farther out of his reach. He watched until they had disappeared and failed to re-appear. Then he realized they were gone for good.

Understanding the danger of panic or rage, Howard surveyed the situation as calmly as he could. But a heavy feeling of inescapable doom gripped his insides. The storm showed no signs of letting up. The schoonerís location was still a mystery. . .. and even if he and Tom did manage to ward off danger from the storm, how long could they do without food or fresh water?

Now, he was suddenly faced with an even more immediate danger. He glanced down at his bare hands. He could see they were already beginning to turn an unnatural white. He was familiar enough with frostbite to know they were freezing . . . freezing fast . . . stiff and useless. His mind raced on ahead. He pictured himself sitting idly by while Tom struggled on alone. It would be too much for one pair of hands in sole charge of the rowing, together with whatever new emergencies might arise.
Howard straightened his shoulders with new resolve. He would never allow himself to become a burden on anyone. If his hands were bound to freeze, then he must see to it they froze in such a way that they would not be useless.

He reached for the two oars. He locked his stiffening fingers around the oar handles and squeezed them to a tight grip. He waited until the feeling was gone and he was unable to move any of the fingers. Then, satisfied that they were frozen stiff, he slipped his rigid fists with their curled fingers off the oar handles. There . . . now! he thought, Iíll be ready to do a dory mateís full share whenever the need arises.

He took his usual turn with Tom in bailing the boat. He chipped off ice collected on the inside with a gob-stick used for killing large halibut.
"Let me do it!" Tom urged more than once.

But Howard refused. "Iíll do my share of the work as long as I can," he insisted.

He tried removing one rubber boot and a sock, slipping the woolen sock over one of his hands to replace the lost mitten. But the hand was swollen to such a size that it would go no farther than the heel. Ice formed a ball in the sockís foot and the weight kept pulling it off his hand.
He was aware that the bare foot inside his boot was becoming very painful. He knew what that meant. But, since there was nothing he could do, he said nothing about it. Why should he worry Tom more than he already was?

The sock was lost overboard in an attempt to break its ball of ice. There was no use going after it. If the dory were to be moved from head-to-wind-and-sea, it would surely fill and capsize.

Throughout that night and all the next day, the storm raged on. Sharp, bitter winds and angry seas kept the dory and its two half-frozen mates in a constant state of crisis. Not a moment could they spare to relax for regaining a little of their strength. All forces of nature seemed joined in a single effort to destroy them. Hunger gnawed at their insides. Even with water all about and everywhere, they suffered torturous pangs of craving for want of a drink.

Howardís hands were becoming ever more bruised and swollen. Yet, each time as needed, he slipped his frozen grip over the oarsí handles and did what was needed. He took his full share of the bailing and ice chipping. Without a word of complaint, he endured while his frozen flesh tore and chipped away from the bone, sending forth a faint trickle of blood that froze instantly.

It was not until close to the next evening that Howard tried to snatch a moment of rest. He prepared to stretch out his long, numbed and aching legs in the bow beside Tom. But it was not to be. The dory, dipping into the path of an oncoming wave, failed to rise in time. Once again the men were doused with a smothering, icy spray.

"Come on, Tom, itís your turn to bail!" Howard cried, lunging awkwardly about in the freezing wash.

Curiously enough, Tom did not move . . . nor did he answer.

"This wonít do, Tom!" Howard said again, his voice rising in annoyance. "You know as well as I that if we donít keep up with the bailing, we havenít a chance!"

Tomís reply seemed strangely detached. "I canít see," was all he said.
"Come, Tom," Howard said again. "This wonít do. You must do your part. Your hands are not frozen or beaten to pieces as mine are." He held out his right hand to show that one of its fingers was dangling, barely attached.

"Howard, whatís the use?" was Tomís desperate response. "We canít last Ďtil morning. We might as well go first as last."
Howard made his way to the stern and sat down, his back to the wind. It was clear that the sole responsibility for keeping himself and his mate alive rested squarely on his own shoulders. Carrying on was not a choice to be made. Taking on a task, to Howard Blackburn, meant seeing it through to the end.

But first things first. He took quick stock of their desperate situation. He was hungry, wet, coated with ice and chilled to the very bone. His hands were swollen, his arms, feet and legs throbbing with a fearful pain. Even the simplest task was becoming nearly impossible. He was totally exhausted and aching for want of sleep. Yet, he knew that allowing himself to drift off even for a moment could mean that all would be lost.
Nightfall was fast approaching once again. Mere resolve to remain awake, however strong, he knew could never be trusted. So, he settled himself in the bottom of the dory with his back to the wind. He rocked himself back, forth and sideways throughout the long hours of darkness, to keep himself awake.

He could hear Tom moaning, begging for water.

"Tom," Howard replied each time, "We have no water."

"Then give me a piece of ice."

Howard brought him a chunk, then returned to his position. He could hear Tom chewing off bits of it.

From time to time, he was aware of a faint mumbling. Howard thought it might be a prayer, with no reply from him intended. He heard his name called twice. When he responded, there was no reply. Once he thought he heard, "Stay with me, Howard." But an exchange of words against the thunderous roar of wind and wave was next to impossible. So he continued to tend those things which he felt to be of most importance.
Then, after a long stretch of hearing no further sound from his mate, Howard became uneasy. He made his way forward to investigate, fearing that Tom might have fallen asleep.

He grasped the collar of Tomís oilskins awkwardly and shook him roughly. "Come, Tom," he said, speaking directly into his ear. "If we give in to sleep, then surely that will be the end of us. Wake up now, and get on with the job!"

There was no reply Ė no movement Ė no response.

The realization dawned slowly . . . slowly, against the resistance of fear and horror. Howard drew a long, agonized breath. His huge, chilled and aching body shuddered. "My God! The poor manís dead!" he said . . . but only the wind and waves were there to bear witness to his words.
He lifted the cold, stiff body in the best way he could. For a moment he forgot the awkwardness and pain of his swollen arms. Somehow, he carried his load, laying it gently in the doryís stern, apart from the main force of the battering waves.

"Poor Tom!" Howard said. "You wonít miss your mittens now." He took the mittens and tried slipping one of them on his right hand, the one that was swollen and bruised the most. But the hand was too puffed and swollen to fit.

He stood for a moment, his eyes on the frozen corpse. He watched helplessly as a sheet of fine spray washed over the lifeless form. It froze as it fell, covering the body with a thin coat of ice in minutes.

Howard turned away, resumed his former position and continued on with the bailing.

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