“Come to, man! I say, come to!”
A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.
“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.
Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!
Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.
“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.
Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!
“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.
Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.
But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.
Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.
There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.
At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.
“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”
“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”
“But–the rest of the crew?”
“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”
Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.
“And the marauders?” he asked.
“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”
Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.
“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”
The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”
“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”
“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”
“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”
“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”
“How much farther is it?”
“We can’t last seven weeks!”
“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”
“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.
“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.
“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”
To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.
They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”
“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”
They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.
“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”
“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–“
His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.
“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”
“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.
“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–“
“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”
“Pull him up!”
Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.
“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.
The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”
“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.
The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.
“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”
Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.
“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.
“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”
“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”
“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”
“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”
The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.
“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”
Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.
“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”
“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”
“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”
“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”
All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.
“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”
“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”
“And you know how to get there?”
“Aye,” the pirate nodded. “I do.”
Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”
“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”
“You can’t be serious!”
Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”
“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”
“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”
“I am in your situation.”
“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”
“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”
“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”
Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”
“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”
“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”
“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.
Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.
“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.
“Just the irony of it all.”
“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”
“Where’s the irony in that?”
“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”
Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.
“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”
“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”
“Do you swear it?”
“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”
“Well then, what is our bearing?”
Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.
“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”
Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.
“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”
“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”
“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.
“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”
Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.
“Show me that you know where we are.”
“Without a pen?”
“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”
Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.
“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”
“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.
“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.
“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”
He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.
“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.
“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”
Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”
Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.
“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”
“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”
Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.
“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”
“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.
“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”
Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.
Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”
Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”
“Nearly straight north.”
“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”
“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”
“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”
“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.
“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”
“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.
“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”
Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.
“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”
So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.
But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.
What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.
It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.
“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”
The other two nodded.
“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”
Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”
“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”
“A twenty hour sprint!”
“What would you have us do, Julian?”
Julian had no answer for that.
“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“
“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”
“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”
“I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.
“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”
Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.
“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.
“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”
“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”
But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”
Julian’s eyes widened in hurt.
And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.
And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.
But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.
“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.
“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”
“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”
“It’s a claustrophobia within!”
And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.
“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”
And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.
When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.
Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.
“There! Over there!”
“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”
“But this! Over here!”
“A breaching whale.”
And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.
“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”
“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”
“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”
Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”
His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!
“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”
“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.
“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”
“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”
Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.
Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.
Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.
Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.
And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.
The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.
“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.
“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.
“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.
“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”
Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”
“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”
Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”
“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”
“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”
“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”
He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.
“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”
“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”
“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”
“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”
“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”
And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.
The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.
A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.
“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”
“What?” Julian snapped.
“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”
“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”
“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”
“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”
“So you’re a coward.”
“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”
“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”
Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”
“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”
“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”
Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.
“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”
“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.
“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”
Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!
“What?!” Captain Molley shot out of his sleep and looked about wildly, trying to make sense of what was going on. His eyes settled on Bartholomew slumped in the bottom of the boat, a small amount of blood pooled under his head. “What have you done?” he cried, and reached down to check Bartholomew’s pulse.
Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek uncomfortably and lowered his oar back into the water. “He was–he was taunting me.”
“So you brained him?!”
“I–I didn’t mean to. It just–I lost my temper.”
“No, you’ve been itching to murder him ever since we brought him aboard. You just waited for me to go to sleep, then killed him because you can’t stand him, didn’t you?”
“Captain you don’t know how it is!” Julian snapped. “Every day he sits there behind me, and every minute I expect to feel a knife slipping between my ribs. You take your rest and I have no one to watch my back!”
“And so you tried to kill him…” Captain Molley concluded.
Julian blinked at that. “Tried? You mean? He’s–“
“Still alive…for now.”
Captain Molley drew back from Bartholomew and levelled Julian with a terrible stare. He was silent a very long time, and Julian fidgeted a great deal, coming to the cusp of speaking a several times, but backing down each time.
“What am I to do with you, Julian?” Captain Molley finally asked. “What am I to do?”
“I don’t think–“
“No, let me think! If these were normal circumstances I know exactly what I should do. You’d be locked in the brig until we made port and then tried for your crimes. But of course these are not normal circumstances. We have no brig, and no promise of ever making port. No…this is uncharted water we’re in, Julian, and it requires a different sort of law.” And as his mind settled on that thought he pushed back his coat and ran a finger along the knife at his side.
“Captain…no. Don’t do this! I’m for you, Captain! I couldn’t manage with that pirate, but there’s been any rift between you and I.”
“There is, Julian! There most certainly is a rift between us.”
“Only if you make it. I have no quarrel towards you. None!”
“And so you’d say do away with justice, I suppose? Never mind that you just tried to kill your own crew?”
“You were right, Captain, these are different waters, and we have to have different laws. But why not a more tolerable law? A kinder law! Why make it be more cruel? I’ve done wrong, I confess it, but let’s just wash it away and be shipmates.”
“Did you let Bartholomew’s wrongs wash away? Did you show a kinder law to him?” Captain Molley flicked the blade out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion.
“Please, Captain. Please!” Julian was on his knees, hands clasped over his breast, and sobbing.
“You’re not the messenger of a new gospel, Julian! You’re not here to give out grace and mercy! You’re just here to save your own, mean skin, and that’s all you’ve ever been about!”
“Help me, Captain. Oh help me!”
Captain Molley began rising to his feet. He was building up the hate in himself to carry out his wrathful justice. What would he do, he wondered. Kill the man, or only take a finger? But in his rising fervor he forgot his wound, and he carelessly let his weight fall onto the wrong side.
“Unngh!” Captain Molley cried, then collapsed backwards into the boat with a crash!
Julian bounded over Bartholomew’s unconscious body and landed by his leader’s side. The boat rocked precariously, but did not tip over. Captain Molley tried to push the man away, but his strength failed him. His face was pale and heavy beads of sweat wreathed his brow. Julian had the wounded man’s jacket and shirt open in a flash and saw the infected gash there, three inches long and entirely untended.
“Captain you should have treated this!”
“Didn’t–want you to know.”
“I knew, you fool.”
Julian reached out of the boat, cupped some seawater in his hands, then scrubbed it against the wound.
“Ach!” Captain Molley moaned in pain. He looked like he might faint at any moment. “Stop it. It doesn’t matter.”
“It wasn’t that bad of a cut, but you haven’t let it heal. It’s been aggravated with all this rowing and it’s getting infected because you won’t let it close up.”
“No, Captain. You rest. Bartholomew and I can–” Julian came to his senses and stopped before he finished the sentence.
Even amidst his agony Captain Molley couldn’t help but smile at that irony. “You brained your last hope, Julian. Now you need his hope and you’re all alone.” Then he lost consciousness, and Julian was all alone.
Julian blinked nervously.
A few moments later and he cut the Captain’s jacket into strips and bound up his side, then left him to rest in the back. He bound up Bartholomew’s head as well, and laid him out to rest in the middle. Then he sat in the front of the boat, faced backwards, took an oar in each hand, and started to row. It was all to him now, and humbled by his guilt, he was determined to do his duty.
It was a very erratic sort of rowing that he did, though. The man didn’t know how to keep a straight heading. Of course he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but he couldn’t tell the difference between ten degrees and twenty, to say nothing of that zigzag pattern Captain had set them on. Had they been slanted a little east of their mark, or a little to the west? Julian couldn’t remember. Did he dare try to straighten out? What if he tried to guess but went even further the wrong way? Of course if Captain did recover, he would want to know how far they had progressed and in which directions, and Julian would not be able to provide that information.
As the sun started to set Julian realized it was time for his daily meal. He put up his oars and devoured his hard tack and salted meat in a single mouthful, then started to close up the bag. He paused before it was quite put away, though, and greedily eyed Captain Molley’s and Bartholomew’s portions. Would they ever be awake to eat them?
“Not now,” he shook his head. “Just not now. See what happens with them over the next day or two. If things don’t turn out well…there will be food enough then.”
He set the bag down, but he did not close it. And if one of them did die, which would be the better for him? Julian was ashamed that the thought occurred to him, and immediately pushed it from his mind.
Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
But in all an empty ocean, with nothing else to distract him, it was impossible to keep the questions at bay. What were the pros and cons, then, if either man were to die?
It was difficult to say that either man was more valuable to him than the other. If they ever did make it to the cove and Bartholomew was still alive, then surely the pirate would try to kill him. The pirate’s long-term survival depended on not having Julian and Captain Molley around to turn him over to the authorities, to say nothing of the fact that Julian had just pounded him in the head!
Captain Molley, however, was no friend either. He had hated Julian from the moment they first entered this craft, and would not rest until justice had been served. And given their last conversation, Captain might not still be willing to wait until they made port to turn him over to the authorities for a trial. No, Captain Molley had a personal vendetta against him now, and Julian was very right to be afraid of him.
“I have no friends here. I only have me,” he muttered. He looked about him. Took in all the open, empty sea. “But only me isn’t enough. I can’t make it on my own. I don’t even have the strength to keep rowing like this any longer.”
The food bag was calling to him. He eyed it once more and licked his lips.
“It’s as much to their benefit as mine that I keep up my strength. If they were awake they’d tell me that I should eat. They’d say that I’m their only chance…. What will they know of it anyway? If they wake up and two days’ ration is missing, how would they know that they simply weren’t unconscious for that long.”
He seized the bag and reached inside. “Just one biscuit. No better make it two…. Well, if I’m taking a whole day’s ration of biscuits, it wouldn’t do to leave the meat, now would it?”
For a moment there wasn’t a sound but the crunching of the hardtack, the gnawing of the meet, and the slurp of him licking the crumbs off his fingers. Then the glug of the bottle as he washed his sins down.
“There. Far better. Now I can really work!” So saying he took the oars and began his strokes with greater fervor. He so continued for fifteen minutes, before he realized he had not revitalized himself nearly so far as he thought. He put his hands on his knees and panted, scared that he might pass out.
“It’s just–it’s just too heavy. One man rowing three? And in such a long boat? It just–it just isn’t feasible. And for what? They’re probably dead in a day anyway, and then I’ll have been carrying their weight for nothing!”
He looked over to the two bodies, but then shook his head. “Not now…give them a chance. A day. When they’re doing even worse in a day I can rid them with a clean conscience.”
But they were not dead, nor dying. Shortly before midnight Captain Molley stirred.
“What?” he asked no one in particular. “Who’s there?”
Julian had slumped forward in sleep, which he suddenly started from. “Oh, I’m here, I’m here. It’s Julian.”
“Oh…” Captain said slowly as his mind reclaimed its memories. “We’re…still on the boat?”
“Yes, of course we are.”
“Where are we?”
“Um–I’m not too sure.”
“Which way have we been going?”
“Mostly the same as before.”
“Which way was that?”
“You don’t know?”
“I–I can’t remember it just now. You don’t know?”
“I never knew. I just turned when you told me to turn.”
Captain Molley looked up to the stars, trying to make out the constellations. But his mind was still swimming, his vision was still blurry, and he couldn’t stop his pounding headache.
“I–can’t,” he sighed. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
And the men went straight back to sleep.
Neither of them were stirred by the sunrise, it was nearly midday when Captain Molley slowly woke. He reached his hand out of the boat and cupped some water to splash on his face. His head still twinged from time to time, but at least he felt more alert now.
“You there,” he rasped out. His dry voice nearly failed him, but it was enough to awaken Julian at the front of the boat, who rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then handed Captain Molley the bottle. “Thank you,” Captain Molley said after his throat had been refreshed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not so well.” Captain Molley took in his surroundings, noticed the cut-up jacket bound around his side, noticed the similar binding around Bartholomew’s head. Noticed the two oars at Julian’s end of the boat. “You took care of us while we slept.”
Captain Molley looked down guiltily. “I know that I am a proud man, Julian. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise. But I am not so proud that I can’t admit when I have done wrong. I lost myself for a moment there. I still say you did wrong to Bartholomew, but I was intending to do wrong as well. I thank God that He intervened in both of our behalf.”
Julian didn’t know what to say to all that.
“Right…well…best we figure things out now. For the life of me, I don’t remember a single thing that was said last night. What’s our heading?”
“I don’t know, I was just trying to follow the same line we had been going at as best I could.”
“And which way was–“
“I don’t know. I thought you would.”
Captain thought for a minute, blinking quickly as he sought for the memory in his mind. “Well I don’t know. As things are now I’d say we’re a little to the east. Would you say we’ve been going a little east this whole while, and never a little west?”
“How far over would a little west look?”
Captain pointed his right arm down the line of the boat, then raised his left arm to point at an angle to it.
“Can’t say. I might not have kept it straight enough that it didn’t stray a little that way or the other.”
“Or stray a lot?”
Captain Molley sighed.
“I’m not a trained navigator!” Julian’s voice raised slightly. “I’m sorry Captain, but I did what I could. These were only estimates we had in the first place, weren’t they? So we’ll just have to estimate again.”
“Yes, we could, but with a wider zigzag to account for the even greater uncertainty. Much wider. And it takes more time to cover that wider arc, time that we already don’t have!”
“I did what I could!”
“But these are the facts all the same!”
Captain Molley’s head throbbed with his raising temper and he winced sharply. His hand flew to his brow, kneading it, trying to release the tension as he slowly calmed back down. “These are just the facts,” he said softly. Then, after another long pause, “And how long have I been unconscious?”
Julian was glad that Captain Molley’s head was in his hands, so that he couldn’t see how Julian chewed gnawed the inside of his cheek and braced himself for the lie. “It’s been three days.”
“Three days?!” Captain Molley looked up with incredulity, but by now Julian had molded his own face into an expression of complete sincerity.
“Yes,” Julian spoke like one telling of a great burden they have borne all alone. “Three days.”
“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”
“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”
“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of which way, and how to correct it.”
“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”
“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”
“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”
“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”
Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”
“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”
“But…what are you saying?”
“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p
“But–but–it’s all that we have!”
“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”
“But there isn’t anything else for us.”
“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”
“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”
Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”
“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”
Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”
“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”
“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”
“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”
“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”
“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”
“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”
“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”
“I don’t see what you mean.”
“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”
“But it was three days.”
“But if it had only been one?”
“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”
Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.
“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”
Bartholomew coughed on cue.
“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.
“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”
Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.
“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.
“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.
“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”
“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”
Bartholomew simply shook his head.
“You won’t tell us?”
“If I tell…you will kill me.”
“What? Don’t be daft, man.”
“He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.
“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”
Bartholomew just shook his head.
“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”
“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”
“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”
Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”
Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”
Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.
“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”
“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”
“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.
Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”
Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.
“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.
Julian simply stared.
“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”
“I can’t accept that.”
“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”
Julian scowled deeply.
The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”
“I’m not a coward!”
“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”
So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.
Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.
“So…” Captain Molley breathed.
The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.
Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.
And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.
Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.
Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.
Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.