The Salted Orchard Part III
(Read Part II here.)
It’s an evil wind that brings us to England, Cusack thought as he stood on the deck, the arctic sea air blowing bitter cold and ruddying his face and hands. A ship of murderers and mutineers, foreign beasts to blight England’s soil, and that home-bred devil worse than all of them, murder deep in his heart and boiling out of him, in his eyes and hands and black mouth. Murder in him again and me to scuttle it, me that couldn’t save Captain Hammond.
I’d burn the ship rather than land it, were it not for all these devils watching me always. I their captain! What fraudulence! They pay as little heed to me as they did Hammond before they strung him up and watched him carried away in the fat bellies of red-faced birds. I their prisoner. Their captain the man that sleeps in Hammond’s bed, this Winston plotting villainy in the quarters under my feet, who says I must deliver them all to England.
To England and my murder. One of these rogues will cry out, “London ahead!” and another will run a knife against my throat. I’m no fool. I endanger these men by living. They’ll bring this ship in quiet and quit it hastily. She’ll sit phantom in the port. They’ll burn the manifest and Hammond’s log. Even if there’s something to name Hammond with, there would be no record of me. I’m dead already.
And I shall not bank on Winston’s perverse challenge. I’ve no doubt that he means to do what he says—that is, murder Fiona Hammond. But he can’t have dared me to stop him. He only said it to keep me from trying to murder him here. Whatever sadism he has promised on the Hammonds cannot extend to me. I am only in his way.
“The fiend!” Cusack let burst, surprising himself. The man at the wheel below turned to look at him. Cusack spit and said to him, “I’ll take ye to hell!”
He left the poop deck and plodded heavily toward the bow. He had spent nearly all of his time above deck since Hammond’s death. Though he was restored to his old quarters after Winston moved to Hammond’s cabin, he hated to be in there. On deck he could see his enemies, could gauge their mood, and prepare for a fight if it was coming. Sometimes he felt like brawling. When he did, he visited Captain Hammond.
Five days on the line had left little of Hammond to talk to. But as long as he was still there, he was still betrayed, dishonored, and unavenged. Cusack leaned over the gunwale to see his old friend. There were still birds picking at him, trying to reach the places that had been missed: some pecked at the joints at the shoulders and one was perched within the ribcage, pulling at some gore behind the clavicle. Cusack gave a shake to one of the ropes to scatter the gulls and, also, in hopes that what remained of Captain Hammond—the ribcage and spine, arms and palms (but no fingers), and naught else—might fall into the sea.
“A day to London, Captain,” Cusack said. “I’ll kill ‘em. My life ain’t nothing. I’ll kill as many as I can. I’ll get their pistols or I’ll get into the magazine. I’d do it now, but it’s Winston. If there’s any chance he gets away…”
Cusack paused and stared into the foamy waves rolling from the ship’s side. He twisted his head around and looked at the crewmen who watched him. He looked back at Hammond’s bones.
“They’ll kill me. They’d kill me now if they knew we were so near.” He stared ahead for a minute, as though he were trying to see London already. “I’ll save your wife, Captain.”
His raw right hand pulled at his thick beard and he looked back at the man at the helm, an ugly Spaniard whose poor English only intensified Cusack’s contempt for him. Cusack looked about the deck for Perlito, whose English was best out of the whole crew. Not finding him, he stamped angrily back to the wheel.
“Are you aiming for France, you idiot? North-northeast I said. Starboard, two degrees.”
“Aye, ye orang-outang.”
Cusack saw Perlito on the deck.
“Perlito! Tell that devil he’ll be in London Thursday morning.”
“This is Tuesday,” Perlito called back.
“I know that,” Cusack yelled. Perlito knocked at Winston’s door below them, then disappeared inside.
Later, in the first hours after sundown, Cusack helmed the wheel himself. It was the night of a new moon, dark in spite of the stars, and everything outside his sphere of yellow lantern-light was void. Black shapes moved on the deck, sometimes into the light of other lanterns, and occasionally a red face flashed out of the night as a man lit a cigarette. He heard their calm voices sometimes erupt in ugly laughter, and he heard the sea and the cold Channel wind whipping through the sails.
He eyed the compass always, and from time to time he made a mark on the map beside him. There was always some other crewman behind him, watching him, and before midnight, he handed over the wheel and gave the man the repeated instructions to steady on, east-northeast, and don’t change it a degree. Then he took up his map, went to his quarters, and slept.
He woke nearly every hour and finally, when he felt the time had come (three o’clock in his plotting), he put on his boots. Near enough, he thought. If that idiot has stayed on course, it’s near enough.
It was dark in his cabin. As prisoner, he’d not been allowed his own lamp. He saw a line of low light beneath the door. He moved cautiously and quietly to it. He steadied a moment. The light meant someone was outside, and he had not planned for that. He knew he would meet a man or two, but for them to be aware of him so soon was unfortunate. But he only had this one chance. They would reach London in a few hours, and when the sun rose they would know it.
Calm, son, he told himself. There’s a bit of time yet. Move slow, don’t raise the alarm. If it means I leave the satchel, then it’ll have to be that. I can make the swim quick enough if he’s stayed on course. I’ll miss the blanket but I can build a fire.
He opened the door as he would naturally. He stepped into the corridor and anticipated a greeting. There was no man. Only a lantern abandoned on the floor, and beside it a pistol. Not six feet from his door they lay there, a burning lantern and a pistol.
He was not normally a reckless man, but events had moved him beyond any regard for self-preservation. His purpose was to prevent the arrival of this evil and better that he do it now, before it reached England, even though it kill him. He stood a minute and watched the two things and listened for the man who left them. He wondered whether it were thoughtlessness or Providence that delivered them. Then he took them up quickly and came back into his cabin.
He knew what to do and lost no time at it. He checked the pistol and saw it was loaded. He folded it in a map to conceal it. Then, with the lantern, he set a flame to another map, rolled tightly. It burned quick. He snuffed the lantern and took the oil from it and doused the walls. He set the burning map on his hammock and it quickly caught. There would be time before it reached the oil. Time enough to visit Winston. He took up the satchel and the hidden pistol and left the room, closing the door behind him.
There were men on the deck, though few and mostly sleeping. Those that saw him eyed him with that same empty malevolence and watchfulness. It was too dark for them to see the satchel and it was not unusual for him to be about at the hour, but still he walked at a deliberate pace, careful not to be waylaid or discovered.
When he arrived at Winston’s door, he looked back to see for smoke. There was nothing yet. The smell might come before the sight in this dark. He pulled out the pistol and let fall the map. The door would be locked but he tried it anyway. It was open.
Cusack burst into the room and scanned it from behind the pistol. Even in the dark, he knew Winston was not there. There was no lamp, no movement, no one in the bed. The cabin was empty. He moved in toward the window, behind the table, and struggled to make sense of it. Winston was gone.
Outside the cabin, the shouting began. Calls of fuego and fire came on a rising din of commotion. Cusack stood behind the table and readied himself for the next part. He opened a window behind him, then gripped the pistol and faced the door. He held his satchel. He did not know what would come next, or what stopped him from moving. He felt something had gone terribly wrong. His plans began to buckle. If Winston was gone, then he was ahead already. Cusack had a long night ahead of him, but it would come easier for Winston. He might have fled hours ago in a lifeboat; he would have guessed how near London was and could have landed at any of the seaside towns on the way. Cusack had failed again, even when he had plotted to manipulate his enemy. He had been duped.
And the pistol. The lantern. Winston had left them there for him. He had foreseen Cusack’s simplistic desperation. Cusack burned the ship because Winston wanted him to. He would kill these men and erase any debt that was owed and any evidence of Winston’s part.
The pandemonium grew outside. The door flew open and one of the sailors stood there and shouted at him in Spanish. Cusack held up the pistol. Behind the man, men ran about in the dark, their lanterns like fireflies. Cusack could see the smoke. In crude Spanish, he asked where Winston was. The sailor threw back a heap of words, and bote was one of them.
It was as he thought. He would not grieve the burning of the ship, but he regretted the lost time. Winston would be well ahead of him by morning. The sailor began shouting again and moved into the cabin. Cusack shot him in the chest. Then he threw down the pistol and lifted himself into the window. He looked for land off the port side and noted where the stars vanished in a crooked horizon. He looked down at the churning sea below him and hesitated. Then he thought of all the men who would jump ship within the hour and he fell fast and deep into the cold cold water.
Read Part IV here.