Tales of the Crimson Widow
"Avast!" cried the captain. "Secure those lines! This storm be a wicked one! Hold her steady! We're going right through..."
The valiant officer gripped the helmswheel as the ship forded through the maelstrom.
"Hold fast now!" the stern captain shouted.
Struggling to keep the mighty vessel on course, the captain could feel the helm's wheel fighting back.
"Elizabeth Thomasina Creststeel!!"
The young girl turned and raised the over-sized hat to see. She was standing on a crate behind the helm of the Manchester Lady, an old cargo ship moored at the wharf in Southampton. On the dock below stood Lucinda Creststeel, a tall thick woman with graying brown hair. She pointed a finger at young Eliza and then down at the wharf.
"Come down here at once! Is this where you've been?"
Sheepishly the little blonde girl took off the hat and hopped down to the deck. She padded down the gangplank, where Lucinda took her hand.
"Sorry Mum... I were just playin'. My chores were done."
Her mother looked down at the slender girl. She made a face and wiped at Eliza’s face with her apron.
"You're filthy. Look at you! You're a sight."
"Mother, please! Folks are watching..."
Once Lucinda finished dabbing at the smudges, she looked down.
"And where on Earth are your shoes and stockings young lady?"
"We were sailing in warm water..."
Her mother exhaled sharply. She took Eliza by the hand and led her down the dock. Several of the working men waved at them as they passed.
"Morning Captain Eliza...”
“How is your brother John?...”
“Good morrow Mrs. Creststeel... "
Their meager home was still well in sight of the tall masts, being just up the main road. Over the door, the placard read "Wavecrest Import & Export - Thomas Creststeel prop." The stone house was simple, but still kept neat even among the more modest dwellings of the sailing men's family that surrounded it.
Lucinda stopped just inside the door, where a basket of wet clothes lay.
"Get those wrung out and hung up. Ye father be home tonight and he be expecting dinner."
If Eliza stood on the back wall behind the house, she could see the harbor and tops of the sails as the ships embarked and came home. She was doing this, having only finished hanging half of the laundry when she was suddenly grabbed from behind.
She tussled against the larger figure pulling her down off the wall and managed to wrap an arm around their head.
"You little wench!" a muffled voice cried.
The someone pinched her ribs as they grappled. Eliza recognized the voice, and she stopped struggling.
The broad-shouldered youth let go and stepped back. His face was a bit flush from her stranglehold, but he was laughing.
"Quite the grip, little sister."
She smiled, then hugged him. Her eyes brightened.
"If you're home.. then..."
"And how is my little Amazon warrior?" Thomas Creststeel bellowed from the gate.
Thomas stooped, but managed to fit through the doorway; even carrying young Eliza on his hip and his duffel bag over his broad shoulder. His son John followed behind, carrying another cloth sack for his father.
"Truly a homecoming I'm unworthy of. Embraces from my beautiful little girl and a warm house filled with smell of fine food!"
His wife turned from her bread kneading and her faced brightened. Wiping her hands in her apron, she stepped to him and they hugged for several moments. Eliza giggled as he planted a kiss on Lucinda.
"You sailing men can never keep to a schedule... you're early. Dinner is far from finished."
"Blame God, love. The wind was at our backs the whole way home."
He laughed and set down his load, lowering Eliza to her feet. John stepped around his father and his mother gave him a welcoming hug as well. Eliza was already busy looking into her father's bags.
"Did you bring me something from the Americas?"
"Well I wanted to wash and shave before your mother's dinner, but let's see."
Thomas sat and fished into the large duffel. He took out a carved wooden figure of a black cat and gave it to her.
"It's a jaguar; a cat as big as a hunting dog." he told her. "When we were ported in Brazil, some native sold it to me. Said his tribe called themselves the jaguar people. Fierce looking these Indians were, too. Some old Spaniards fought them years ago. Said even the womenfolk would fight. So they called them Amazons, like those Greek stories I told you."
Eliza's eyes were alight as she looked at the little statue.
"So, Amazons are real?"
"Guess so, my girl." Thomas said with a laugh. "You're not the only one." He mussed her hair.
"Thomas..." Lucinda chided. "Don't be filling her head with those notions."
"What notions? She's a strong young lady and she can be whatever she wants to be."
Eliza grinned and made a grimacing pose at him. Thomas bellowed a hearty laugh at her.
"Who's going to stop a warrior like that I tell you?"
"Well, the mighty Amazon can feed those hens out back and bring in the eggs."
Lucinda went back and flustered at the table, chopping up potatoes. She swung the cast iron pot out from the fire and checked her stew; tossing in the vegetables. Eliza set the jaguar figure in the window sill, gave her father a hug and hurried outside.
Dinner was rather boisterous as Thomas and John both regaled of their voyage to the new world. Thomas talked of the warm blue water and white sands and crystal skies but also violent hurricanes, while John went on about stories he'd heard of dreadful pirates plundering unarmed cargo ships.
"Surely, Thomas... you can't take such a journey again, "Lucinda fretted. "Between the storms and murderous thieves, it's by the grace of God your small ship made it back."
"My darling dearest," he said with the wink, "You son does romanticize...but I don't think I'll be going back any time soon. I can't bear the thought of being away for so long. By next time I'd return, Eliza here will be another foot taller."
"As tall as John?" Eliza asked with smile.
"My girl, if you've got any of me in you... you're head will hit that doorframe..."
He laughed and took a drink.
"Besides..." John injected, "There's still plenty of work here... and I'll be taking over the Manchester Lady."
Lucinda glanced at him, then Thomas.
"Heavens!" Eliza said, "My big brother a ship captain?"
"Well, why not? He's earned it! I've taught both of you enough about ships and sailing..."
"I could helm for you!" Eliza announced. She pretended to work a helm's wheel. "Hard a' larboard!"
"You can't reach the wheel yet..."
There came a knock at the door. They were startled, but Thomas nodded - as though he expected it.
"Just a moment, my dears.
He got up from the table and stepped to the door. Eliza tried to watch, but her father only opened the door a crack. Outside in the lamp-lit street was a tall, stern man with a black hat and jacket. Thomas and he whispered, then her father nodded and stepped outside.
"I will be right back." He shut the door, but before it closed, Eliza heard him say, "I told you, Mr. Mercer... I would come by tomorrow..."