“I often regretted that I had brought my Son with me . . . Fully sensible of our Danger, he was constantly endeavouring to bear up under it with a manly courage.”
- The Autobiography of John Adams
Johnny’s stomach was rolling like the ship. Side to side. Up and down. Shuddering when it hit a wave.
His stomach wanted to be back on land. Somewhere stable. Somewhere still. Anywhere but on a ship.
The ship rose on a wave, and Johnny tipped out of the hammock. He landed next to his father’s empty hammock. The floor shifted. Johnny lost his balance and nearly fell into the wall.
Johnny grabbed his father’s desk. Steadying himself, he felt in the dark for the cabin wall and found the door. Hand on the handle, his stomach moved again. His dinner was coming up.
He took a deep breath and hurried into the hallway.
The companion hatch bounced above. The ladder underneath was slick with sea spray. Johnny balanced himself and went up a step. Then another. He pushed the hatch open and his face met the wind.
Johnny filled his lungs with ocean air. His stomach stopped rolling. He sat on the top rung breathing with relief.
Around him was blackness. The lanterns had been darkened to hide from British ships.
But there were sounds. Seagulls screeched. Sails whipped in the wind. Timber creaked under their strain. Waves crashed against the hull. Sailors shouted to be heard.
A large wave hit the ship, and everything shuddered again. A warm sick feeling climbed in Johnny’s throat.
Johnny staggered past a snickering sailor. He dodged three others pulling a rope. He went past two ropes hanging from a spar. Finally, he found the rail.
Beyond was the white-spotted ocean and fog above it.
A knot in his stomach loosened. Then it tightened again.
Everything came up. Everything his mother had given him the night before. Everything he had eaten and drank. Everything.
Everything flew into the sea.
His stomach convulsed again and again until nothing was left.
Exhausted, Johnny collapsed behind a barrel. He closed his eyes and pretended everything was still. That everything was quiet. That everything was over. That he was back on the farm in Braintree.
A sailor’s rough whisper sounded behind him. Johnny tried to ignore it. But the man spoke again. He said, “Have you found them?”
Found what? thought Johnny. What was he supposed to find? Johnny tried to sit up on his elbow.
But the man wasn’t talking to him. “Not yet,” answered a second voice. There was fear in it mixed with caution and worry.
A wave crashed again, drowning out the voices. When it was quiet, the first voice was saying, “. . . the strongbox?”
The second answered, “I haven’t found the key.”
“Did you see if the cabin boy has one?”
“If he has one, how will I get it? He stays close to the captain all of the time.”
Johnny’s stomach moved again. But there was nothing left to lose, so he stayed where he was.
“Find the key,” said the first voice. “And when you’ve found the secret plans, don’t steal them. Leave them be. Very important you leave them be. Understand?”
There was a quake in the second one’s voice. “You’ll vouch for me when they come?”
“Aye,” said the first one. “And you’ll be rewarded. I’ve got a letter from Lord North himself. They’ll have no doubt.”
Lord who? Lord South? Is that what the man said? No . . . Lord West? What were they talking about? Plans? Who were these men?
Johnny got to his elbows. Pulled his feet under him. Braced himself. Stood up.
The two men were gone.
Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were right in front of him. There were probably a hundred sailors on the deck, but Johnny couldn’t see them. He could only hear them. He could hear them moving in the ropes. Shimmying up masts. Swinging like squirrels.
The two men had been talking about a strongbox. Secret plans. A reward for stealing them. And a Lord who would pay.
What were the secret plans? His father’s plans? His father was going to France to get help for the Revolution. But that wasn’t a secret. Everyone knew it. And it wasn’t the kind of plan that could be stolen.
What secret plans were they looking for?
“Johnny!” came a cheery voice. “That's a green face you've got. Let me get you back to your cabin.”
“Mr. Griffin,” said Johnny. “There's something – I – I just heard something. Sailors talking about a strongbox and a Lord and secret plans.”
Mr. Griffin put an arm under Johnny. “Put your arm over my shoulder, Johnny. I’ll help you to your cabin. Don’t you worry. Sailors are always talking. And it’s always foolishness.”
“But-“ started Johnny. “There was more to it. Stealing it. And a reward.”
Mr. Griffin laughed a little too loudly. At Johnny’s look, he got quiet. “Could be that your stomach is messing with your head. Get yourself back to bed. We’ll see how you feel in the morning.”
Johnny staggered back to his swinging hammock. He climbed in and thought about what he heard.
A Lord. A strongbox. A key. Plans.
That’s what he heard.
He knew what he heard.
They were spies.
They had to be.
After General Washington’s army retook Bunker Hill, the British had left Boston. But they hadn’t left America. They moved their headquarters to the port at New York. From there, they set up blockades along the coast. They raided coastal towns. Their ships harassed every American ship that tried to sail.
American ships that broke the blockade were chased by British ships. Like rabbits escaping sprinting wolves. The British ships were faster with more guns and caught American ships every week.
Desperate for help, the Congress had turned to France. They had sent Ben Franklin to France to ask for help, but that was two years ago. No French ships had come. The French king must have told Ben Franklin no.
The British ships continued to raid and chase the American ships that sailed.
The Congress decided another man sent to France might convince the French king to send help: Johnny’s father. Together, John Adams and Ben Franklin would get French help, the Congress hoped. The French king would send ships and weapons. Maybe French soldiers, too.
That was why Johnny and his father were sailing to France.
But that was all they were doing, as far as Johnny knew.
Unless his father hadn’t told him. Unless there was a secret plan for getting French help.
What could it be?
Johnny wanted to ask his father, but his father wasn’t there.
It had been foggy and dark when they boarded the ship. The captain had given the order to lift anchor immediately. All sails had been raised. They had sped past the shoals and tiny islands off the Massachusetts coast. They wanted to reach open ocean before the British ships saw them.
Johnny’s stomach had revolted, and his father wasn’t back from where he had gone. The captain’s cabin?
The sounds of the ship quieted. Johnny decided to ask his father in the morning about the secret plans.
Johnny drifted off to sleep.
The morning’s warm gray sun came through the porthole and landed on Johnny’s face.
The warmth felt like a fly, and his hand tried to swat it away. Instead, he slapped his face and woke himself up. Blinking, Johnny lifted his head. It threw off his balance. His hammock turned sideways.
Below him, his father’s hammock was still empty. Johnny swung back and forth until he could turn himself. Right side up again, Johnny stared at the ceiling.
He tried to remember what had been so important the night before. There had been something. Something important. But Mr. Griffin thought it wasn’t. Or acted like he thought it wasn’t. But it was important. Secret plans? A strongbox? A Lord? That was it!
Johnny swung his legs over and jumped softly to the floor. He stood for a moment to see what his empty stomach would do. It did nothing, so he put his clothes on. He wondered where his father was. He wanted to tell him what he heard. To ask about secret plans.
But first, he had to be sure. Johnny decided to retrace his steps. To find the barrel he had been behind. To find where the sailors he heard would have stood. Just to be sure.
Johnny poked his head into the sunlight on the quarterdeck and saw what had been covered by fog the night before.
A whirlwind of sailors.
Some were tall. Most were short. Many were furry as squirrels, with chins and forearms thick with hair. All were strong and moving with speed.
Johnny tried to make sense of it. He tracked one sailor from deck to mast to rope. But he lost him as he went behind a sail. Johnny watched another climb to the forecastle, go up the foremast and tighten a rope.
Johnny rubbed his eyes and followed three more. They went from bow to stern. To the higher deck at the back of the boat. Where there was a man steering a wheel.
So much happening. So much work to push a ship through the sea.
But where was he last night? Where was the rail he went to? Where was the barrel he sat behind when he heard the voices?
Before he could find them, a voice said, “Are you Johnny Adams?”