Boat of Three: Part Four

blur boat close up paper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“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!

“Captain!”

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.”

“I–have to–row.”

“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.”

“Mmm.”

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?”

“I…hope not.”

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.”

Part Five

On Monday I spoke of characters that are sincerely good, characters that are sincerely evil, and characters that only put on a face good, willfully ignoring all the unscrupulous things that they do. In the case of this story Captain Molley is moral and strict and he owns it, Bartholomew is devious and wicked and he owns it, too. But Julian has claimed to be virtuous, while also trying to cheat and abandon his shipmates.

As I explained, the characters that an audience will respect are the ones who are honest about their true nature, and they will tend to dislike those that are two-faced. Julian is the most detestable character in this story, though not because he has done the most detestable things in his life.

With this section I tried to have him retain his petty self-delusions, but also become a more sympathetic character to the audience. Though I don’t intend for my reader to approve of his eating the other men’s food, I at least hope that they’ll appreciate how hard of a situation he is in. They don’t have to condone his behavior to still feel sorry for him.

But, of course, his situation is only getting harder now, and all because of his own deceit. Now that he has done something wrong, he must now tell lies about how long the men have been adrift at sea. And this lie will have unfortunate consequences that he has not accounted for. He is going to be caught between the horrible choice of coming forward with the truth, and being killed by his shipmates for it, or else maintaining the lie to his own destruction.

This idea of a character having painted themselves into a corner is a staple in literature. There is something fascinating about the karmic justice of a person that is impaled on their own sword. Come back on Monday as we explore this concept further, and then again on Thursday as we see how Julian falls into his own conundrum.