The sun beat down onto the skiff, not a single cloud in the sky to offer respite. No doubt, someone somewhere was basking in it, remarking on how lucky they were to have been blessed with such glorious weather. Thomas peered out of his makeshift turban and cursed the merciless ball of hellfire, giver and taker, creator and destroyer. He felt as if he could see the wood bleaching before his very eyes, the thought made him thirsty. He licked his blistered lips and contemplated taking a drink but decided against it; the remaining water was too scarce to waste on mere thirst.
They had been at sea for six days, no sight of land, no sign of rescue. Poor Hawkins had been the first to go, his wounds had been too severe and he had passed on the first night. The captain had filled Hawkins’ pockets with some of the gold and the two had ceremoniously lowered him into the water, watched as he disappeared into the velvet blue depths. There had been no need for words, both men were well accustomed to death by then.
Through the slit, Thomas studied his captain. McCollough was sitting in his spot at the bough, gazing out across the endless blue, still searching. Despite the captain’s dishevelled uniform and furious skin, he exuded authority; sat up tall, gold-flecked chin pointing to the horizon. Thomas knew McCollough would never accept defeat from the ocean. The sad realisation dawned on Thomas that McCollough’s authority would die with him, the last of the once great captain’s men.
The skiff tinkled as it rocked to-and-fro on the current. Thomas dared not look at the bounty, the sun’s reflection in it was blinding. More gold than they could spend in a lifetime, it lined the boat, stacked into mounds in the centre which were displaced and had to be remoulded whenever a larger wave hit the hull. It was all the men had known for the last three days, they had eaten in it, slept in it, and now here they sat, watching the horizon, praying for rescue in it. Thomas recalled the third night, when the storm had hit; how the two had feverishly dumped the gold out of the great wooden chest and into the skiff in the hopes of using the empty chest to catch rainwater. It had worked and that piece of quick thinking from McCollough was the only reason they had lasted this long. However, the skiff was now dangerously overweight and off balance, even without Hawkins. Another storm would be their end.
‘These damned gulls,’ McCollough muttered under his breath.
‘Captain?’ Thomas croaked.
McCollough swung his gaze around, bewildered. His eyes locked onto Thomas and the confusion faded.
‘Ah, Thomas, my boy,’ the captain said, a smile creaking across his cracked mouth, ‘I had thought you asleep.’
‘Never on duty, Cap’n,’ said Thomas, attempting to emulate the smile.
‘We’ll see land anytime now. Gulls never stray far from land.’
Thomas stared upwards and combed the empty sky. Not a gull in sight. Not even a cloud to mistake for one. He looked back to the captain gazing out to the ocean. Perhaps it was his eyes playing tricks on him, the captain was a far more astute observer than him after all.
‘Tell me again, lad, what do you plan to do with your… share?’ the captain said, rolling one of the coins between his fingers.
‘Well, Cap’n,’ Thomas said, ‘there’s this girl back home, see, I think I’d like to marry her. We’ve been courting for a few years now but her father said I wasn’t man enough yet to have her hand. I daresay if I turned up with a sack of gold like this he’d change his tune!’
‘You’re certainly a man now, m’boy,’ McCollough said gravely, he glanced back, ‘blooded and all.’
Thomas winced. The word sent visions of mayhem surging into his mind; men screaming, cannons firing and thick blood curdling on the deck, the stench of gunpowder, the man lying beside the door with his insides out, gasping like an animal. He shook the images away.
‘And what of you, Cap’n?’ he said, ‘what’ll you do with your gold?’
‘Vengeance, my lad. I’ll use these riches to smite down all who have betrayed me, those who have sewn treachery into the ranks of my men and stolen my glory! I’ll make them rue the day they crossed Captain John M. McCollough!’
At that the captain tried to stand, rocking the skiff violently. If Thomas had not instinctively lurched to the other end, they would have capsized. The captain sat in the gold where he had landed, caught in a coughing fit.
‘Cap’n, please, drink some water,’ Thomas said, dunking a goblet into the chest.
As his coughing subsided, the captain eyed the goblet suspiciously, as if he was trying to work out what it was. His eyes darted to Thomas’, then away to the horizon.
‘No… no, I’m not thirsty.’
‘Cap’n, please, you must drink! I haven’t seen you touch a drop today,’ Thomas said, holding the goblet out. McCollough ignored him, eyes fixed on the horizon. Thomas felt his heart drop, perhaps the old man was preparing himself for death, allowing it to take him. Or perhaps he was saving the reserves for Thomas, so that at least one of them would survive. Thomas poured the water back into the chest, best save it for later. He lay down and covered his face with the turban that used to be a shirt.
So that’s how the boy intends to do it, McCollough thought to himself. Not a man at all, no duel, no fight. Poison, the coward’s way. Perhaps the boy had outlived his usefulness already. He could just about man the skiff alone, perhaps the time had come, before the bastard had the chance. They were near enough land now anyway, those gulls flying overhead were a sure sign of that. Wretched birds, hideous things. Squawking and screeching, making that awful racket up there. McCollough turned his head from the horizon and peered through the corner of his eye at the boy laying there, pretending to rest. He shuddered. Murder was a nasty business. Battle was one thing, but murder? He would have to wait for the boy to make his move, then he would strike.
The captain seemed so tense, Thomas thought to himself. He had not been the same since the battle, the weight of all that death. Thomas hoped that when rescue finally came, the captain could find a way to forgive himself. No one could have seen the ambush coming, it had all happened too fast, too much at once. They had been overwhelmed, slaughtered like beasts. It was a miracle anyone had survived. Thomas felt lucky, thankful that it had been the captain who had tumbled into the skiff with him; who better to get them out of this hell?
‘Back you bastard!’ the captain shouted, swatting at the air around his head.
‘Cap’n,’ said Thomas, sitting up, ‘what’s wrong?’
‘That one nearly took my bloody head off!’ the captain said, frantically glancing about himself, making sure he had seen off his attacker.
‘What are you talking about, Cap’n? There’s nothing there.’
The captain turned slowly to Thomas.
‘You mean to deceive me, boy? Make me doubt myself? The fucking gull, you wretch! Can’t you see, we’re surrounded by the bastards! Do your eyes fail you or would you have me believe myself mad!? Answer me, boy!’ The captain’s eyes were wild, he tried to stand but the rocking planted him back on his seat.
‘Cap’n… there are no gulls. Please, sir, you must drink something, this is madness, you’re killing yourself!’ Thomas pleaded.
‘Better I do it myself than allow a knife in the dark to fall between my shoulders.’ McCollough’s nostrils flared, he examined Thomas through his brow, fists clenched.
‘Cap’n… what are you talking about?’
‘Simpering mongrel! Even now you see the game is up you continue your lies! You think I do not see through you? Well now you see, I cannot be deceived, wretch! You think I do not see your eyes, how you look at my gold? How you make your plans and covet my legacy! Coward! Show yourself, you bastard! Draw your weapon and let’s settle this with honour!’
The captain rose and steadied himself against the rocking of the skiff. Thomas shrank from him, his ears set ringing by the cacophony of gold cascading to the edges of the boat. He raised his hands, implored the captain with his eyes.
Look how this cur cowers before me, McCollough thought, now he knows I have him, he reveals his true self! The boat pitched manically as McCollough wrapped his hands around the chest filled with water, hauled it into the air.
‘Fool!’ he roared, ‘you would doom us both just for a taste of gold, and you thought I would not see it? Hah! I cast out your treachery!’
With that, McCollough hurled the chest over the side of the skiff. As it hit the surface of the water, the chest burst open and the last of the rainwater diluted with the salt, became one with the ocean. Thomas watched through eyes wide with horror as the chest sank into the abyss like Hawkins had.
‘You… you’ve killed us both. Cap’n, what have you done?! You’ve killed us both!’
McCollough stood above him, bellowing the laugh of a madman. Thomas recoiled, searched for escape. There was none.
‘Killed us both, he says. Killed us both! Hah! No, poor wretch, I shall not die here on this cursed ocean! But you, you know the penalty for mutiny. Choose your fate, boy: exile or death.’
McCollough’s mouth curled into a grimace, his eyes like pieces of black flint staring out from under a granite brow. Thomas could not believe it, he would not. How could this be happening? Surely the captain could not mean it.
‘Cap’n… please. Please, Cap’n, this isn’t right. You’re not right, sir. Please, just see. Come back Cap’n, please.’
‘Get off my boat, scoundrel!’ McCollough hollered. He lurched forward and grabbed Thomas by the scruff.
The two struggled against each other. Water splashed over the side of the skiff, threatening to sink it and send them both to the depths, McCollough would not relent. Thomas gripped the side and screamed, protested, began to sob. But McCollough was twice the size of him and wrenched the scrawny lad from his seat. With a look of triumph, McCollough cast Thomas over the side and into the blue.
‘Cap’n! Cap’n, no! Please don’t leave me here! Please Cap’n!’ Thomas cried as he treaded water, trying to keep his head above the lapping waves.
McCollough paid him no heed. He planted himself at the centre of the skiff and picked up the oars, began to row calmly away from the traitor who had sentenced himself to his own fate. When he hired his next crew, he would not make the same mistakes. He had been too kind to those men, it had allowed those scoundrels who were so disposed to think he was weak, had sewn weakness amongst the rest. Next time there would be no quarter given, he would make himself indomitable. No more mistakes, no more cowards under the wing.
The cries of the traitor bobbing in the wake soon faded. McCollough ploughed on. Each row brought a light tinkling, mingling with the whoosh of the water. He was close to land now, he could feel it. Above him, the grotesque gulls circled just out of arm’s reach, screeching and cackling at him. McCollough glared at them, wary of their dives. One of the braver gulls swooped down from its kin and landed on the bough. It glanced ruefully at McCollough before turning and staring out to the horizon of endless blue.