Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Chapter 25: CONTRABANDISTAS
It took Jack another day to find the sloop that flew the compass rose. She was not out in the road off Sandy Point, nor off the hidden cove where he and Tory had once made love. But there were other coves. He changed his horse for a fresh one in Sandy Point Town, and rode along the coast overlooking the bays and inlets of the northwestern end of the island.
But it was not until dawn the next morning that he was able to identify the ship he sought, putting out of an overgrown lagoon for the open sea. A gaff-rigged cutter, sleek as a dolphin’s fin; a black jolly boat on davits on her port quarter. Nothing remarkable about her, but for the way she handled on the water, smooth and fast. And the gold compass rose she sailed under, a small pennant fluttering at the end of the gaff above the mainsail. Easily missed if you weren’t looking for it through a good spyglass, as Jack was.
Still, his glass was not powerful enough to bring her crew into view. She stood so far out to sea that day, Jack knew her only by her carriage, and fell into a panic that she might slip out of his sight altogether. He had to fight off the impulse to jump over the cliff and swim after her while he could still see her, but even after a day and a night without sleep, some part of him sensed this was not a wholly rational plan. The sloop continued up the leeward coast, however, venturing inshore again at dusk toward another sheltered little bay, and sending in her boat after nightfall.
For two more days, Jack followed the coast road, tracking the sloop’s progress. Learning her pattern, as she cruised far offshore by day, and came in at a new place each night. There were no towns out at this end of the island, only the outer extremities of sugar estates whose people were busy at their crop-time labors. Few authorities to notice what was going on at the planters’ private docks. The sloop was clearly offloading something in private, but was it slaves? Even from this distance, the trim little sloop seemed to lack the stench and the gloom of a slaver. As near as Jack could make out in the dark, when he ventured off the road at night to the edge of the scrubby cliff to spy on the little boat below, she rowed in and out with the same people aboard. He never saw Tory among them, and it was with some relief that he assured himself that she was not the cargo.
She must still be aboard the sloop, confined to the galley, or her new master’s bunk. Slaves were a luxury aboard a small working ship, conveying status upon the sort of contrabandista who liked to give himself the airs of a potentate of the sea. But small minds were easily bored. Her captor would tire of his new prize soon enough; she would be just another mouth to feed, a hindrance in a fight or a flight. Jack knew smugglers grand enough to acquire slaves treated them with slightly less regard than the shoes on their feet, useful in their day, but easily worn out and discarded. Jack did not intend to wait for these fellows to tire of Tory. He had already stretched his luck to the limit, keeping the sloop in sight these three days. She might head out for the open sea at the next turn of the tide and never return, leaving him stranded ashore, taking the secret of Tory’s fate with her. He must get aboard that sloop.
His opportunity came the next afternoon when he saw the sloop anchor far offshore, and calculated her next likely destination. Before him lay the northernmost point of the island, where the leeward coast met the windward, and the Caribbean Sea flirted with the Atlantic Ocean. It was called Dieppe Bay, and Jack knew it well. He and Tory had spent several days exploring its beaches of fine black volcanic sand, as astonishing as a coastline of crushed black diamonds. It was an exotic, unforgettable place, with a little village nearby, the last of any size to be found along the island's Atlantic coast for some time. The sloop would finish her business here, he was sure of it. She would not ruffle her pretty feathers sailing into a headwind down the Atlantic coast. What could be more ideal than to unload the last of her cargo in a black boat on a hidden, black sand beach in the black of night? Jack had no doubt whatever that this would be his last and only chance.
He took his horse into Dieppe Bay Town, and paid a reliable-looking mulatto youth attached to the single grog shop to feed and water it and see it safely back to the ostler in Sandy Point Town. He ordered brandy for himself, to brace up his wits. Then he left the village and made his way to a rocky path he remembered that wound through palm groves and dense thickets of seagrape down to the black sand beaches of the bay. The Atlantic breeze was fresh, and he wandered down the coastline until he found a little inlet hidden under seagrape that sheltered a planter’s dock. There was a little rowboat tied up under the dock on the sand, a utility boat for fishing or transport. Jack hid himself well under the seagrape and waited for dusk. As darkness began to dim the beach, he cut the little boat loose, dragged her into water just deep enough to float her, and pushed her along until he found a little pocket of water hidden under an overhang of round, flat seagrape leaves on the edge of the larger inlet. He dragged the boat into this hiding place and crept into her bottom to wait.
He would get aboard the sloop while her people were busy ashore, some of them, at any rate. He would find Tory, and get her away into the black night. There were scores of places to hide on this coast; chances were excellent that her captors would not even bother to come looking for her, busy now with their own affairs. A piece of clothing left floating on the surface to make it appear that she had jumped or drowned, and that would be the end of it.
And if she were not on the ship? Jack did not like to consider that possibility, to imagine all the flaws in his plan. He had no notion where the sloop had been between the time Tory was allegedly taken aboard and the sloop's appearance in Sandy Point Town. Tory might have been sold off anywhere in those intervening days, lost to him forever. But why would the sloop leave the waters of St. Kitts if she still had business on the island? And even if Tory was no longer aboard, someone in her company would know what had become of her. What was it Captain Hart used to tell the crews of captured ships? He was perfectly willing to cut out tongues until he found the one that talked. Ed Hart was generally bluffing, but Jack would not be. Once he got himself aboard, he would find out where she went.
He heard the smugglers' customers first, a peevish English voice, then another, barking orders from behind the seagrape at the foot of the little dock on the far side of the inlet. Peering out into the darkness, Jack saw three figures emerge along the dock, slaves accustomed to the work, making ready to receive their visitors. The English voices droned on from the very back of the dock. Jack could not see to whom they belonged, they were hanging back prudently under the seagrape cover, nor could he make out much of what they said, for the surf was beginning to rise on the hidden beach, the incoming tide that would soon bring the smugglers' boat inshore.
It was not long before the little black boat pulled into the cove. It passed so near to Jack’s hiding place, under the foliage, he could see for certain that Tory was not in it. He waited until all hands were busy on the beach, offloading crates that the Negroes piled up on the dock, before he slipped over the side into the water and pulled his own tiny boat out into the dark sea. Getting past the surf was the first hurdle, but Jack had had a lot of experience with shallow boats in treacherous circumstances. This part of the coast was so reefy, it was better to swim through the black water with the boat’s painter wrapped tight around his hand and feel his way along. But out past the low breakers, as the water deepened, he chanced climbing inboard and getting out the oars. It was close, careful work, but he managed it. Up ahead, around another bend in the coast, standing off from a wider cove, the sloop was waiting. Jack pulled with all his strength for the single light on her mast.
The sloop had never sailed close enough for Jack to count her company. But he had seen four fellows in the boat, and he did not suppose there were many more than that still aboard. It should only take a handful of fellows to operate the sloop, she was so trim. And fewer hands meant fewer demands for a share of the profit. This crew had likely been plying their trade in these waters for years, and would not be looking for trouble. They would certainly not expect to be boarded by a lone fellow in a rowboat. He had the element of surprise in his favor.
The sloop rode with her starboard side facing the coast Jack had left behind. Her bows were pointed north by east, toward the Atlantic. The little cove where the cargo was being offloaded would scarcely be visible from out here, even in the daylight, but if anyone were attempting to keep watch over the transaction, they would be stationed in the starboard quarter. So Jack pulled far around for the port bow, fighting the choppy swells of the Atlantic until he could come about, pull his oars inboard, and silently ride the swells in under her bow. He tied the boat to a length of cable, climbed the cable up the side, and peered in over the rail.
By the light in the masthead, Jack saw the deck was nearly flat, for speed, with a chopped deck above the stern cabin only a couple of feet above the quarterdeck. Like a pirate vessel. No wonder she handled so sweetly. Jack felt a pang of nostalgia, but he fought it off; this was not the moment. She carried four guns. Evidently, these fellows trafficked in something worth protecting. But he was in luck. Although he heard some muted voices from below, there was only one hand on deck, and he was off amidships at the starboard rail.
Jack kept his eye on the fellow’s back as he pulled himself up over the rail and landed behind the bowsprit tackle. He moved silently to the windlass, and ducked behind it, out of the light, still watching the fellow’s back. Jack couldn’t tell if he were on watch or simply stargazing, planted near the foot of the mainmast shrouds, gazing aft. Perhaps drunk, but Jack dared not assume he would be that lucky. Better take care of him now, before heading below to search for Tory. One less opponent to hinder them later.
He moved like a shadow to the foot of the mast, and glanced toward the open hatch. The voices below were still an indistinct murmur, and Jack heard the familiar rattle of a dice cup, but no one was coming up. He would be more likely to find Tory alone if the rest were intent on their game, but he must be quick. He stepped up silently behind the watchman, shorter than himself by just a little. Jack had his knife hilt upraised; one sure, swift blow ought to do it.
But in that instant, the figure before him spun around, and Jack found himself staring into the business end of a flintlock pistol held in two steady hands. He froze; only his eyes moved, traveling up the shirtfront and into the last face he was ever likely to see in this lifetime. A smooth, beardless face, with a light dusting of freckles, under a cloth cap, bright dark eyes going round, as well.
The face he had longed for, searched for, all this time, was suddenly staring into his, her expression as thunderstruck as he felt. It must be a dream, a hallucination. Jack was so shocked, he was shaking; he didn’t notice his knife slide out of his grasp and clatter to the deck. He saw the pistol lowered, saw it disappear from her hand. He didn’t hear her say his name, only saw her mouth form it; there was a roar like a hurricane in his ears. The world was spinning off-kilter, the sea boiling overhead, the stars swimming at his feet. And then she was in his arms, and it was no dream.
"Jack," she breathed again, scarcely a whisper. Her mouth pressed against his ear, as her arms twined around his neck. His body knew hers, beneath her unfamiliar mariner’s clothing, and he pulled her so tightly against him, he knew he’d separated her feet from the deck. He staggered a little, bearing her weight, struggling to keep himself from swooning, falling, fighting to keep his wits about him.
"Oh, hombre, I’ve missed you so much..." She was half-sobbing, half-giggling, as Jack held on to her.
"Are you all right?" he managed to gasp into her hair. "Christ, Rusty, I've been out of my mind! What are you doing out here?"
She lifted her face, blinked at him. "Keeping watch. What are you—?"
"No, there’s no time.” Jack forced himself to remember his purpose. "Quick, before they hear us. I’ve brought a boat—"
"What?" She looked confused.
"A boat. Hurry—"
"But, I...we...Jack..." And then she started to laugh. Loud, boisterous laughter, the kind he usually loved, but now it sounded crazy. Hellfire, was she mad? Had she been so badly hurt, she’d lost her reason? Jack made a silent, frantic vow to murder everyone who had done this to her, but for now, if he could only keep her quiet and propel her...
But it was too late. Already, there was a commotion below the after hatch, the whole damn crew it sounded like, called above by Tory’s mad laughter. He would never get her across the deck and over the side, never. He grabbed Tory round the waist, and his hand closed around the knife in her waistband; he would not go without a fight. He would kill as many as he could, and save the blade for Tory if he could not get her away, if they tried to lay hands on her again—
Then he spun around toward the hatch, and knew he had lost his mind.
There stood the ghost of Edward Cameron Hart, frozen to the deck above the hatch—high, broad forehead, bushy brows, and crafty dark eyes, long salt-and-pepper mustachios trailing down either side of his chin. At his elbow rose another apparition, a tall, thick trunk, ferocious black eyes peering out from a riot of tangled black and silver hair and beard. Nada. Two or three other fellows Jack didn’t recognize had boiled up out of the hatch behind them, but they hung back, confused, waiting for a signal. Hart was clearly their leader.
"Hellfire, amigos, it’s true what they say!" Ed Hart suddenly roared. "The dead do walk. Welcome aboard, Danzador!"
Jack could only stare back, speechless. Even if he could think of anything rational to say, his tongue had turned to hash, along with the brain that played such tricks on him. He was glad Tory was still holding him so tight; that was all that was keeping him upright. He glanced again into her radiant face, saw her grin. Then he found himself engulfed in the beefy embrace of his former pirate captain.
(Top: Shipping Sugar, Antigua, 1823. Image Reference NW0066, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)