To read the past parts of “Pirate Hunters,” check out Volume 2, Issues 2, 3, 5, and 6 in the Inkwell Literary Magazine’s online archive.
Red. Blood Red. That’s what the sky looked like that morning. Any seaman worth his salt knew what that meant. In my mind I could see the dark clouds laughing thunderously as they flashed their white-hot teeth of lightning at us. The storm would overcome us before the day was over, and we all knew it. Blast sat on deck, cleaning his gun collection, which surrounded him like a stockade. Occasionally, he would glance at the blood on the horizon in silent thought. Up in the rigging, Monkey nervously glanced at the gathering forces of darkness that we could just barely see mustering above the red. At the wheel, Willie dutifully kept the course to Mexico I had assigned to him, but his usual friendliness and joviality were gone. Even Fiddler, who was especially talented at keeping up our spirits, had no smile to offer.
In the midst of all these men, only the captain seemed unchanged. Captain Deney, in fact, had an additional gleam in his already fascinating eyes. He seemed especially jovial as he roamed among his crew, sharing subtle words of encouragement and patting them on the back.
He came over to where I was leaning against the ship’s railing, eating my small breakfast. “Are we still on course, Marine?” he asked. It was an unnecessary question. I knew he trusted me completely.
I nodded. “Right on it, sir.”
“Good!” he slapped me on the back. “Keep it up.”
I smiled faintly. “Aye, cap’n.”
As he moved away, I took a good look at his face. The captain’s face still intrigued me as much as it had on the day I first met him. Sometimes he looked like a man, other times like a boy, and still other times like both at the same time. But today, as I looked closely, I was quite sure he looked older than usual. But, as I mentioned before, his character was quite unchanged.
It had been about a week since Dabu and I had been mastheaded together for fighting in the captain’s cabin. The crew still treated both of us the same, but we both were still humiliated. We knew the crew talked about us. Sometimes they would stop conversations when either of us came into earshot or start whispering when we were out of it. The only thing that made this bearable for me was that Dabu had to suffer through it too, and for him it was worse, since he was the first mate.
Dabu and I had taken great pains to avoid each other. And it had worked splendidly. Before, we had often verbally attacked each other and committed any small offense we could get away with. But now, we completely avoided each other’s presence.
By noon, the winds had picked up considerably. The dark armies of the clouds were marching swiftly up to the Adventurer’s starboard. The wind carried voices with it, evil spirits whispering doom into our ears. We had all been through storms at sea before, of course, but we knew that if the storm blew us too far off course this time, we would die a slow, agonizing death of starvation. And that is what made this storm so terrifying. It wasn’t the thunder, the lightning, or the waves that seemed to exceed the pyramids of Egypt in height. It was what could follow that chilled the marrow in our bones. We could end up completely alone, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far removed from aid.
Captain Deney stood up by the wheel, next to Willie. Dabu shouted up to him. “Should we furl the sails, captain?”
“Not yet,” Deney replied. “Let’s get everything out of this wind that we can.”
A few minutes later, I heard Deney talking. Not being able to hear him above the wind and assuming he was talking to me, since I was nearby, I walked closer to him. But when his words became intelligible, it became very clear that he was not talking to me.
“You made the sea, and all that dwells in its depths. You made the sky and the sun and the moon and the stars. You have redeemed me by Your own righteousness. Lord, I entrust my life into Your hands. Please protect my men and grant them survival. You have given us this mission. Give us the strength, the endurance, and the cunning to bring James Vaydor to justice. He is a man who does not respect You, Your laws, or those who bear Your image. Give me the strength to be an emissary of Your justice and a witness of Your goodness to my men and the world. This storm looks strong, but I know Your power is greater and that this storm obeys Your every command. Please carry us through. Yours be the glory and the power and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
Instinctively, I crossed myself. I was struck by how personally this man spoke with God and the confidence he had in God’s power. The reader might not quite get the impression from the text written above, but when Deney had been praying, his face had been glowing, his mouth smiling, and his eyes open and directed at the sky. I would not have been surprised if the clouds had opened and God Himself had stepped forth to protect us.
All of these thoughts crossed my mind in the time I took to cross myself. When I looked up, the captain’s eyes were upon me.
“Yes, Marine?” Deney asked, once again assuming his captain’s voice.
For a few seconds, I couldn’t say anything. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I felt ashamed. But Deney could read my mind.
“Come,” he said, “let’s go to my cabin.”
In the captain’s cabin, Deney sat in the red velvet chair behind the desk. The portrait of the beautiful woman that Dabu and I had broken in our fight had resumed its place on the wall behind him.
I sat down on one of the stools in front of the desk. I dared not make eye contact with the captain.
“What’s wrong?” Captain Deney asked.
Finally, I released the fateful words. “I’m afraid!” I said in a sobbing whisper.
Deney leaned forward. “Of what?”
“Everything!” I almost shouted. “Everything. I’m afraid of the sea. I’m afraid of Vaydor. I’m afraid of God. I’m afraid of death.”
“There is no dishonor in fear,” the captain said gently.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “It’s why I left the navy.”
I took a deep breath. “I was serving aboard the H.M.S. Odysseus about three years ago. We were escorting a ship that was carrying some very valuable cargo—I think dignitaries or maybe weapons. One day a brig flying the British flag sailed up to us. When it came in range, it fired its cannons at us. We were taken completely by surprise. The attacking ship took down the Union Jack and hoisted a red flag bearing a skull with lidless eyes.”
Deney sighed in recognition. “Vaydor’s flag!”
“Once it had fired a few volleys, the brig turned to flee. Naturally, having superior firepower, we pursued. But before we realized what was happening, the Odysseus ran afoul of a reef that the attacking brig had obviously known about but we had not. It was a trap, and we were shipwrecked. The pirate brig immediately turned around and riddled our ship with cannonballs until she collapsed. Many of our men were killed. The frigate we had been protecting tried to escape but failed. After the pirates raided it and left, the frigate also sailed away, leaving us for dead.
“I and a few others—I don’t remember how many—were left stranded in the Caribbean, with nothing whatsoever. The longboats had been shot up by the pirate cannons, and all supplies had slipped into the sea with the wreck. We had nothing but the clothes and equipment on our bodies, and the pieces of the wreck we grasped to stay afloat.
“I don’t remember how long we drifted in the sea. I just remember there being nothing, nothing except water and sky. Water that to drink was death. Every day the sun rose out of that dreadful water, taunted us all day with its hot stare, and then sank back into that horrid water. We survivors soon all drifted apart and out of sight. Oh yes, and I remember sharks. Sometimes it seemed they would circle me for hours. Thankfully, I was on a beam of some sort that kept me out of the water. But those beasts unnerved me and drove me mad. I should have died out there! I should have. Sharks, sun, and saltwater, sharks, sun, and saltwater, sharks, sun, and saltwater! But I was rescued by another naval vessel and forced to continue serving until my enlistment contract was up. As soon as it was, I sailed back to Whitby and determined to stay there and never go to sea again. Until you showed up.”
“Henry.” I started when the captain said my first name.
“You have suffered much and lived in fear and bitterness as a result. But you need not. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind. You can be free from the sharks, sun, and saltwater.”
“But I’m not!” I said. “I heard you pray. God is not that way to me. How do you do it?”
Just then, the Adventurer went through a huge lurch. The storm was coming on. Dabu burst through the door. “Captain, we must furl the sails now!”
“Furl the sails!” Deney ordered, standing up. On his way out, he grabbed my arm. “We are not finished speaking. But until we have another time, just know you are not the only one who has suffered dreadfully.”
We headed out the door. The ship rocked like a cradle, but our feet knew the sea, and we kept our footing. Small, icy darts of water flew in my face, along with the heavy salty breath of the ocean. The clouds were almost black, and the wind howled like a pack of wolves. “Death!” it seemed to whisper. “The deep is waiting for you!” I shuddered.
The crew started working feverishly to furl the sails. A ship with open sails in a storm is like a wagon being pulled by a spooked horse. As the crew worked, the sea grew more and more hostile. Each wave seemed larger than the one before. I tottered to the mainmast to look around for a place where I could help. It had been less than a minute since I had left the cabin, and I was already soaked. I jumped as a burst of thunder and lightning startled me. Looking behind me, I saw Willie struggling with the wheel all by himself. I decided to go help him, knowing that it was in my best interest to keep on course. I took a safety line from the mast and tied it around my waist. As I half-slipped, half-crawled to the stairs that led up to the wheel, I chanced to glance at the sea, and my heart leaped into my throat. A gigantic wave towered nearly as tall as the mast. Not having any time to take cover, I set my teeth and waited for the watery leviathan to strike.
It was like jumping into a lake, except reversed. When the water enveloped me, there was silence. The wave hurtled me across the deck and thankfully slammed me against the railing. My hands scrambled for a handhold and found one, and then my throat screamed for air. The wave rolled off the deck, and I breathed the air gratefully.
But as I looked behind me, another wave of equal power was bearing down upon us. Glancing around at the crew, I saw that everyone else was either safely entangled in the rigging or connected to a mast with a safety line. All, that is, except one. As the rain stung my wet face, I noticed with horror that Captain Deney’s line was not a safety line at all, but a loose rope that hung limply on a peg on the mast. I could also tell that he was trusting it to hold him through the next wave.
Mere seconds before the next watery mountain invaded the deck, I screamed, “Captain!!”
Abandoning all caution, I sprinted to the mast, hand outstretched, to grasp the loose line.
And then the wave hit. Once again, the silence engulfed me. With bubbles blurting from my mouth, I thrashed in the murky darkness for the captain’s line and finally grasped it. Holding on for dear life, or rather, the captain’s life, I let the wave do to me whatever it pleased, and I found myself once again slammed against the ship’s railing. When the wave had rolled off the deck, I glanced around frantically for the captain. I felt a tug on the rope, and there he was, fighting for his life in the angry Atlantic Ocean.
I tried to pull on the rope, but I could not, and I could already hear the next wave coming.
“Oh God, please God, help!” I blubbered.
I was just about to be submerged in silence a third time when a huge, dark body bounded next to me and seized the rope. When the wave rolled off again, it was Dabu. Together we strained and pulled on the rope. Even though Dabu was stronger than I, I could tell that even he would not be able to support the captain’s lifeline by himself, so I threw every ounce of effort into the work. I don’t know how long we pulled on that rope until finally we hoisted the captain back onto the ship. He was lifeless.
Between the two of us, Dabu and I carried the captain to the door of his cabin.
“Do what you can!” Dabu shouted at me over the roar of the storm. After a quick, worried, and longing glance at Deney, he patted me on the back and went back out to help the crew on the deck. He shut the door, and I was left alone with the cold, wet body of Captain Joseph William Deney.