The pistol ball whizzed past his ear at the same second he heard the crack of the gun. His ear burned as if a hot fireplace poker had touched it. The spent ball clattered against the rudder head.
There was just room to squeeze past the rudder head and out, into the purple-gray light. Phineas held his breath and left the Marigold behind him.
The roar of the explosion engulfed him before he hit the water. A hot dragon’s breath of splinters and wooden pieces and broken iron bits wrapped itself around him and threw him over the waves. Things tore past him and dashed into the sea and pummeled him from behind.
The wind shrieked through his hair until he crashed face first into an enormous wave that pushed him backwards towards the inferno.
The sea was cool and stunning at the same time. The ocean sucked him deeply into the wave, into a quiet, swirling peace. Within seconds he popped out the other side and back into the purple-gray light. He twisted and kicked himself around in a circle, frantically looking for Taylor and Louise. But he saw only the Marigold.
She was just half there. Her left side still towered above the waves, like the remaining wall of a collapsed ancient castle. Just a few ribs remained of her right side, standing up out of the water like the ribcage of a dead horse.
As he watched she leaned farther and farther over to the right, until, at last she lay down sideways in the sea. Her bottom slowly rose, like a vast turtle, slick and smooth and weed covered, above the waves, and then she disappeared.
The wind howled through the waves, the green sea foam lifting him up to their tops and carrying him down the other sides. He thrashed and kicked to stay afloat, but was too tired. He could not keep on.
“All right,” he gasped, “all right. You won.”
He closed his eyes to die, sucked down into the warm, dark deep with no one to cry for him.
“It was a good run, old cracker,” Nigel said to him.
“We had a lot of fun,” Phineas whispered, his voice cracked and shattered as the last of his energy ran out.
“The problem,” Nigel said quite simply, “is that we never cleared up those Massachusetts warriors. We’ve still got that to do.”
“I…just…can’t…” Phineas gasped.
Something knocked him gently in the back of the head.
“Nigel,” he gasped, and thrashed himself crazily around in a circle, hoping it was a boat filled with his friends. It was just a plank.
But it floated smoothly, like a raft. He clung to it desperately, resting. The sea, still in its violent rage, slapped around him, trying to suck him off the board, tried to pull him down to die. His ear burned where the pistol ball had taken the top off it. The wind howled through his hair. He closed his eyes against the blown spray.
He laid his head, the side that didn’t burn, on the raft for a moment. It felt so good just to rest for a second. The Marigold flickered through his mind – that man with the awful scar, and Carothers, or whoever it was, that spit in people’s beer. And that Jaffrey.
A shudder ran through him. Jaffrey was gone now, and Carothers, and all the rest of them. They’d killed his father, and he’d killed them. The sea had gotten all of them.
“How about a huzzah for that, eh lads?” he croaked.
The plank felt pretty solid. He raised his head and looked at it. It was big enough to hold him, and it floated flat on the waves. With a grunt, he kicked his legs and propelled himself out of the water and onto the flat of the plank.
The water slapped at him again and tried to pull him back.
“Not yet,” he whispered.
The plank skittered beneath him and twisted in the waves, but it didn’t turn over. He lay on his back and panted in short breaths, waiting for his heart to slow down. It had been beating as if to burst for the entire day. His eyes closed.
The wind pushed and pawed at him, flapping his sodden clothes about his face. A strong gust caught him and spun him dizzily beneath the strange sky.
He suddenly opened his eyes, absolutely certain that the Kathryn B was right next to him. As his plank traveled up the slope of a wave he craned his neck and looked around, hoping to see her. He couldn’t. Louise had promised that he could, but she was wrong.
Louise. She and Taylor were gone, too. Drowned, probably, if not blown to pieces. He sighed – Taylor couldn’t even swim. If they weren’t blown up with the Marigold they certainly couldn’t survive in the wild, wind-driven sea. It had gotten them.
He closed his eyes again and listened to the wind tearing through his hair. It didn’t seem quite as vicious as just a moment ago.
Images played through his thoughts. The Bartolomeo, shattered and smoking, flickered in and out of the gaunt wall of the Marigold hanging over the sea. His father’s face was overlaid by that of Sir Edward, Red Suarez, that pirate Bancroft, and that nasty, sneering grin of Jaffrey’s.
He shook his head, partly to clear his thoughts and partly to dash the water from his eyes, and sat up. Although the wind still howled wildly, it seemed to howl less than just a little while ago.
The sky had turned from a purple-gray to an orange-gray as the sun began to set. He could, for the first time all afternoon, see that there were clouds up there – it was the clouds, flattened underneath and torn by the wicked wind, that had turned the sky gray.
He examined his raft. It was a big piece of wood, three or so feet wide, which had once been nicely painted, but was spattered with tar. Big iron bolts pointed up off of one side. His heart leapt when he recognized it: it was a channel, just like the one on the Kathryn B. It had obviously blown off of the Marigold, but had to come to rescue him in his most desperate hour.
Tears ran down his cheek. It wasn’t the Kathryn B. It was shattered and broken and lost, like him.
He prayed silently that the Kathryn B wasn’t the same.
Mountainous green waves surged around him. The wind pushed at him, driving his tiny raft farther and farther out to sea. He rested for a while, his mind drifting from one event to the next. His ear hurt tremendously. A low moan caught his other ear. Perhaps it was the Kathryn B!
He searched the waves frantically, looking for the tall masts and her bright sails.
The moan came again, closer this time. He froze.
It was a man. Over there in the same wave. He was seriously hurt, and just barely able to keep his head above the water. He moaned deeply, like a wounded bear.
Phineas sat very still and stared at him. It was a pirate. It had to be. Of course they didn’t all evaporate in the explosion. Of course they’d be trying to get rescued.
“Phineas!” the pirate called. He seemed to have Nigel’s voice. “Phineas! You have to help me, old log!”
“I… I can’t,” he called back.
“You must help me! I am dying!”
Tears filled Phineas’ eyes.
“Nige! Hold on, leftenant!”
He leaned over the side of the channel and paddled furiously towards the injured pirate.
He paddled with all his might, up the side of an enormous wave that lifted him far, far into the air. The channel twisted and turned and slid down the backside of the wave.
Nigel was just a few feet away.
Phineas dashed the spray from his eyes.
“Nige! I’m right over here!”
Nigel splashed weakly in front of him.
But, it wasn’t Nigel. It was a battered pirate, awash in a red patch of sea, face up, eyes open. But he didn’t look at Phineas. He was most probably dead.
“You can just stay over there, boyo,” he muttered angrily. “I’ve had enough of pirates.”
Phineas paddled away from him.
The wind turned his raft, and he swiveled his head to watch the man who bobbed in the sea just a dozen feet away. The pirate uttered another low moan, shifted his head, and then slowly blinked his eyes.
He looked right at Phineas. His eyes looked like bright little pearls in the deeps sockets of the man’s hairy, grimy face. Phineas stared back at him, scared that he might try and board the channel.
Phineas grabbed the edge of the channel as it tilted under a wave, keeping his eyes on the pirate. The same wave lifted the pirate up and up the slope. An arm flew above him in a crazy man’s wave before he disappeared over the crest.
When the channel slid over the crest the man was gone. Phineas looked around wildly, expecting him to pop up right next to him, but he didn’t. The pirate was gone.
He watched the sun as it approached the horizon. The wind burned around his injured ear, and he was terribly thirsty. But he wasn’t dead, and his clothes had dried pretty well in the howling wind.
He thought about the pirate, and how easy it was to row the raft away from him. He sat upright even straighter. Now that the wind was easing up, maybe he could row himself somewhere. He sat up on his knees and looked for a piece of wood to use as a paddle.
Several broken pieces of the Marigold bobbed nearby, but none of them was big enough to use as an oar.
“I’ll just do it myself,” he croaked and lay down, face first, on the channel. He hung his left arm over the side and paddled furiously. The raft rode up the back of a wave, but then turned to the left at the crest, and dropped sideways down the slope on the other side.
“This is useless,” he sighed and climbed to a sitting position. He was so tired, and so thirsty. He watched the sun droop in the sky. The clouds had broken and scattered, and blue-orange sky peeked through the deep avenues carved by the wind.
He looked around him in the gathering evening. There was nothing to see but waves that now had creamy white caps instead of the snarling stark white stallions that had been there earlier.
“You don’t gamble with the sea, lad,” Uncle Neville had said. “She always, always wins.”
He knew the sea was going to win. He had told it that he hated it, and now the sea was coming for him.
He cursed himself for getting into this mess. If he had only saved Nigel. If he had only shot Alfred Townsend. If he had only tried to learn what Lourdburton and Uncle Neville and Duffy tried to teach him. If he had only taken the step, that one step, that would have changed things. If he had only stretched out with his life, had tried a little bit harder, had taken just one more step. But now it was too late. The sea that tried to kill him so many years ago had him at its mercy. It had killed everything, and now it would get him.
“Come on then,” he told himself. “It isn’t quite that bad. Everyone said you tried your hardest to save Nigel. You wouldn’t really have shot Alfred….”
A cross wave bumped his sideways, and the channel spun around in a lazy circle. The ocean was impatient.
“I know,” he muttered to the sea, “I know. You’ll get your turn.”
“It’s not really your fault,” Nigel’s voice told him. “You blew up that pirate ship, old whistle. Surely that must count for something, eh?”
“My best friends died,” tears thundered into Phineas’ eyes. “I killed you, I killed Taylor, and Louise.”
“Well, you think you killed me, but it wasn’t you. It was the sea. The ocean always wins.”
“Uncle Neville said the same thing.”
“The sea wants you, Phin, old board.”
“It will get you, too.”
“At least we’ll be together, eh?”
“Where are you, Nigel?”
“Closer than you can know, old boat.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, my friend.”
Phineas flopped himself down on the channel and closed his eyes. He had gone crazy. He knew it. Perhaps that’s how the sea would get him – suck the crazy young gentleman from the channel and drag him to his death.
“Ahwoo!” echoed over the waves.
Phineas sighed again. He could finally hear the manatees Father had promised him so long ago. Father’s impression was remarkably lifelike. He had sounded just like them.
Phineas listened to the sound of the mighty manatee, calling for whatever it was that manatees called for. The sound reminded him of Father, of Duxbury. Of when he wasn’t sure to be dead.
“There he is!” a voice yelled.
Phineas, dazed and exhausted and half-asleep, was only mildly surprised that manatees could speak English. Perhaps they were in his head, too.
“Ahoy, there,” a familiar voice burst over the waves. “Have ye gone deaf, or are ye planning on sailing to Santo Domingo?”
Phineas sat up. The voice was familiar. And it clearly did not come from a manatee. He looked around him quickly.
“Ease all,” the voice said. “Backwater, back. Easy!”
A white boat, shockingly white in the gathering dusk, worked its way skillfully towards him, not twenty feet away. In its bow stood a very giant of a man.
“Father!” Phineas shrieked and leapt to his feet, wildly rocking the channel. He didn’t care if it flipped a cartwheel. “Father!”
“Oh, thank God,” Mad Pat Caswell said, leaning out over the bow of the boat as far as he could. The oars splashed wildly as the men rowed the boat frantically close enough to the channel so that Patrick could pluck Phineas off.
Phineas stared through the spray-filled dusk at the vision. It couldn’t be Father – Father had disappeared so many years ago, only to reappear as a pirate and then die when his ship turned over.
This was another illusion, like Nigel talking to him. But the boat seemed so real. He wanted to believe in the boat – it seemed like a real boat. He watched Father, huge and grinning, in the boat’s bow, reach out his arms. Father looked just the same as he did the last time Phineas saw him, so many years ago.
The boat veered closer. It seemed so real.
Father’s arms reached out grabbed him by the upper arm. The channel skittered away, out from under Phineas’ feet. He knew that this was his death, that the sucking sea would now pull him under, even as this fantasy played out in his brain.
But the grip didn’t let go. Instead of splashing into the sea, he was lifted, lifted and dragged into the boat. His good buckle shoes caught on the rail – he kicked mildly to make it over.
Massive arms bundled him into a bear hug – a bear hug he hadn’t felt in so many years.
“Thank God, son,” Mad Pat murmured. “I thought I’d lost ye. Oh, thank God I found ye. Thank God.”
It was Father. Father was everything he remembered from so long ago, everything he had forgotten that he’d missed. Visions tumbled through his head. Like a swirling snowstorm the images of the past tumbled and swam in interlocking paths through his mind. Nigel’s waving arm became that of the drowning pirate. Ten thousand splinters buzzed past him like the mosquitoes at Fotheringham School. That iron ball tumbled at his face once more, tumbled and dully reflected the fading sunlight, barreling straight at him until, just before it struck, merging into Father’s concerned face.
“Out oars,” Father said firmly without releasing his hold on Phineas. “Steer east, I’m thinking.”
Eventually, finally, he released his hold on Phineas. Phineas wiped the tears from his eyes and looked at his father.
“I was so afraid you’d drowned when the Grace turned over,” he said.
“We would be, had we not been towing our boats,” Father replied cheerfully.
“It was a good idea, in this wind,” another man said. “Always tow your boats in a battle.”
“Oh, father,” Phineas sobbed, “I’ve done something terrible.”
“Here, now,” Father consoled him,” if it was the blowing up of that bloody buccaneer, well, I’ve never seen anything braver in all my days.”
“My friends, Taylor and Louise,” Phineas sobbed, “they were on that ship. I killed them.”
“Well, I say, that’s inaccurate at the least,” Taylor called. He and Louise sat under blankets in the back of the boat. Phineas stared at them in a surprise, wondering briefly if this was still a fantasy.
“How…?” he began.
“When we saw that the Grace was going over we jumped for the boats,” Father said. “It was touch and go for a bit, but most of the lads got clear of the ship before she went down. We all agreed that there might be some poor sailorman adrift in the sea after that wretched Marigold blew herself up, so we headed over yonder to see could we be of aid. We found your friends first.”
“I almost learned to swim, Phineas,” Taylor croaked. “Louise taught me!”
“‘E swims like a bébé,” Louise joked.
“They told me what you did, lad,” Father said gently. “You saved the Kathryn B! If ye hadn’t blown the Marigold she’d have been board and board in the space of ten minutes. I am terribly proud of you.
“Starboard a point, Mr. Ransdell,” he said over his shoulder. “I think I see a lantern off the port bow.”
“There she is, sir,” a sailor said cheerfully. “I can see her lights!”
Phineas stared across the waves, exhausted to his soul, aching in every bone, and watched three lanterns dance playfully on the waves ahead of them.
It was the Kathryn B, her tall mainmast catching the very last of the sunlight.
Uncle Neville blew his nose in his handkerchief, the sound runny and flatulent and jarring. He stood in the doorway of the aft cabin.
“I thought we’d lost ye for sure,” he sobbed. “Oh, whatever would I tell Bethany?”
“So, ’twas you what cut the tiller cable?” old Mr. Sturgis asked his sister’s stepson.
Taylor looked sheepishly down at the deck from his perch atop Uncle Neville’s desk and shook his head. The blankets in which he was firmly wrapped shook with him.
“Well, it was my idea,” he said slowly. “But…” he rolled his head toward Louise.
“You?” Sturgis asked in surprise.
Louise sat beneath another pile of blankets on the window seat behind the desk, beneath the great stern windows of the Kathryn B. Several had been broken, admitting the cold remains of the gale that had tortured them all day. She smiled apologetically.
“It was Taylor ‘oo gave me the idea,” she said.
“I am powerful proud of you, lad,” Sturgis croaked earnestly. “Powerful proud, whoever did it.”
Phineas, bundled in blankets in his cot, opened his eyes. Sleep clawed at him, trying to pull him down like the sea outside. He fought them open again, looking at the people crowded into the Kathryn B’s little aft cabin.
Uncle Neville blatted into his handkerchief at the gallery door. Taylor and Louise, wrapped snugly in their warm piles of blankets. Phineas sat up suddenly.
“Where’s my father?”
Lourdburton pushed his way into the cabin from the doorway. Concern lined his long face.
“He put about to look for more survivors.”
“What?” Phineas cried. “He went back out?”
“He’s a captain first, Phineas, and father second.”
“But the storm…”
“The weather’s moderated quite a bit, and your father’s an excellent sailor. I have no worries for him.”
“But…” Phineas shook his bandaged head. “It’s not fair…”
“He has to do the right thing, Phineas.”
“You did well out there.”
“I’m sorry, sir?” Phineas croaked sadly.
“Aboard the Marigold. You did well.”
“Oh, uh, thank you sir,” Phineas mumbled. A compliment from Lourdburton was beyond belief.
“Sun up, lad, we’ll find him. Don’t worry for your father.”
Lourdburton stiffened up to his full height.
“I say, things have worked out rather famously,” cried Sir Edward, marching through the door in his now-battered maroon coat with the off-white facings dusty and smoke-stained, a large parchment in his hands. He beamed like a child.
“We have the prize. Ganders stole it from the Tres Hermanas. Red Suarez tricked him into giving it up. And young Phineas, here, snatched it out Suarez’ very hands.”
“What prize would that be?” Uncle Neville asked.
Sir Edward smiled confidently.
“A prize, sir, of terrible value to her majesty the Queen. You shall each be rewarded handsomely for your part in this adventure.”
“All fine and well,” Uncle Neville persisted, “but what is it?”
Sir Edward looked about the cabin as if searching for spies. He stepped closer to Lourdburton and Uncle Neville.
“A map,” he said quietly.
“Good heavens, not some idiotic treasure map, is it?” Uncle Neville moaned.
Sir Edward grinned.
“Gentlemen, I can assure you that the treasure in this map is worth a thousand times more than all the pirate hordes that have ever been taken. This map alone, if it can be proven, will change forever the course of European history. I have myself looked upon it, and am quite convinced of its authenticity.”
“Sir Edward is quite an expert on maps,” Lourdburton said proudly. “He’s a regular consultant to her majesty on matters of charts and atlases.”
“How could a single map do all that?” Phineas croaked.
“This map, gentlemen,” Sir Edward said in a loud whisper, “shows a hidden waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.”
“Eh, what?” Uncle Neville asked.
“My word,” Lourdburton said.
“Think of it, gentlemen. No more voyages around the cape. The Pacific, the East, South America, they all become ours. The riches of all of the Pacific fall into England’s hands. With this map, gentleman, the world belongs to England.”
“Do not the Spanish ‘ave your map?” Louise asked.
“You have hit upon the thing, madame,” Sir Edward replied. “The existence of this map has only been rumored. Had her majesty dispatched a warship to find it, surely more steps would have been taken to protect it.”
“We’ve been slowly closing in on it for years,” Lourdburton said. “Phineas, your father…”
Sir Edward cleared his voice sharply. Lourdburton winced.
“…well, we’ve had agents tracking it through South America. You know, keeping her majesty’s eye on it without causing suspicion.”
“At last, we found out that it was on its way to Spain aboard the Tres Hermanas,” Sir Edward continued. “We sent ship to intercept her, but Ganders turned out to be more desperate than we’d thought. We were certain we had lost the map when Williwaw fired into the Grace and sailed off.
“I charged Lourdburton, here, with finding a merchant ship to find the Williwaw.”
“I knew it!” Uncle Neville gasped. “I had the feeling we were being commandeered. Arthur, I am beyond despondent. How could ye do this to me? Doesn’t the Navy have their own ships? You thought fit to commandeer mine?”
“Her majesty has no need to draw attention to this enterprise,” Lourdburton said. “And I rather doubt the Williwaw would have closed with a frigate.”
“But, my ship! Could ye not see fit to hijack someone else’s vessel? Something bigger? The Kathryn B’s no fighting ship…”
“Oh, I never doubted that we could outsmart Tom Ganders,” Lourdburton continued, “nor that he would give chase to us. When I saw Grace, I knew we had to get to Port Royal, for Ganders must no longer have had the map. Mad Pat would have taken it from him.”
Phineas sank back on his pillow, listening to the voices tumble on and on, these men congratulating themselves on their sublime luck, cunning, and brilliance in pulling off their most impressive coup.
Father was out on the dark sea again, his boat filled with wounded pirates, like the one that sailed away from Phineas. A captain before a father, that’s what Lourdburton had said.
The sea bumped against the hull. He felt it out there, calling, rolling through the gathering darkness, wondering why it hadn’t gotten him this time.
“I beat you,” he whispered. “My father will beat you, too.”
A sudden gust of wind rattled through the broken glass, carrying with it a touch of sea spray. The candles guttered for a brief second.
“Phineas, lad,” Jablonski called. “I’ve sommat to say to ‘ee.”
The round sailor pushed his way into the cabin, past Sir Edward, Lourdburton and Taylor.
“Yer lordship,” he nodded to Sir Edward, and then turned to Phineas.
“Does you remember when we had ourselves that talk about bein’ a Jonah…well, about bad luck and all that?”
“Aye, sir,” Phineas replied quickly. The memory of that awful manta ray swam before his eyes, and he shivered to think of it. “I do.”
“Well, lad,” Jablonski smiled even more broadly, “ye need worry about it no more. I thought that the Mary-Gold had done for us for sure. But you did the dirty, lad, and saved us every one. Bless ye, son. There’s no bad luck what follows ‘ee. Ye’ve made yourself a right noble place aboard this ship. I am proud to call ‘ee shipmate, lad. ”
He made a little clicking noise with his tongue, touched his knuckles to his forehead in salute, and walked out the cabin without another word.
Shipmates. Jablonski considered him a shipmate. Duffy had said there was a special bond between shipmates. An unbreakable trust. Tears welled in his eyes.
“I hain’t sure I can be rebuildin’ that,” Mr. Sturgis said quietly. He pointed at the shattered windowpanes and broken frames.
“I’m certain you’ll find the wood somewhere,” Lourdburton replied.
“It hain’t the wood, it’s the glazing. That bloody pirate shattered nearly every window in my stock!”
“And now we can go home to Boston,” Taylor said.
“I can sail to France from there,” Louise agreed cheerfully.
“Well, now. About that,” Uncle Neville said nervously. “I’ve yet to see a profit from this voyage. John Townsend will not be happy should I bring back his cargo.”
“We’ll discuss that later,” Sir Edward answered quietly.
Phineas lay back is his cot and looked at the deck beam above him. The wood was smoke-stained, but solid, and just as firm and constant as the day the Kathryn B was built.
The sea bumped against the hull, sending a shiver through the ship’s timbers. He shivered too, despite the heavy blankets wrapped around him. Never had he imagined he would have been adrift on a piece of wood during a right blow. Never would he have imagined he would even go to sea at all. And now he had shipmates.
The sea pushed against the Kathryn B, surging out there in the dark, still waiting for him, almost calling him.
“I beat you,” he whispered again. “You got Nigel, but you didn’t get me. I gave you the Marigold. That should be enough for you.”
The men’s voices rumbled in excitement over their discovery. There would be time for that tomorrow. For now, it was enough to be warm and out of the wicked sea. Father was sure to come back with his boatload of lost sailors, rising magically out of the ocean like some Greek hero.
“Thank you for giving my Father back,” he whispered.
All he wanted to do was sleep. The pirates and the terrible blow and the vast, horrific sea were all in their places, far outside the ship.
The cot was warm and immeasurably comfortable, and sleep opened her arms to welcome him in. With a gentle kick, his good buckle shoes fell to the deck, finding their rightful place beneath the cot. He was in his place, here aboard the tiny Kathryn B. He was home.