On Stranger Tides Page 8


Jack Shandy squinted now, and pulled harder on the oars as if that might get him into his uncle's presence sooner, as he remembered talking to the landlady of the shabby rooming house in which his father had died. John Chandagnac had gone there as soon as he'd heard of his father's death, and he plied the woman with quantities of syrupy Dutch gin to get her to focus her dim attention on the old puppeteer whose body had been carried down her stairs four days earlier. Finally she had remembered the incident. "Ah, oui," she'd said, smiling and nodding, "oui. C'etait impossible de savoir ci c'etait lefroid ou la faim." His father had either frozen to death or starved, and there'd been no one there to notice which death had got him first.


Jack Shandy had no real plan, no particular idea of what he'd do when he got to Port-au-Prince - though he had brought his father's death certificate to show to the French authorities in Haiti - but his lawyer had told him that the charges would be virtually impossible to press from another country in another hemisphere, so he was bringing it to where his uncle Sebastian lived. He could only guess at what problems he would run into, difficulties of pressing criminal charges as an alien, hiring a resident attorney, ascertaining precisely which - if any! - local laws had been broken ... he simply knew he had to confront his uncle, let the man know that his crime had been uncovered, and had led to the death of the cheated brother ...


Shandy hauled on the oars, and watched the long muscles flex in his arms and braced legs, and he allowed himself a grim smile. In addition to extra cannon, powder and shot, sorcerous apparatus - the tools of vodun, or voodoo - had been loaded aboard the Carmichael, and one magical procedure required the use of a large mirror; another pirate crew had acquired several, and had sold one to Woefully Fat, Davies' chief bocor, and Shandy had been given the job of getting the thing aboard. During the operation he had happened to face the mirror squarely - and for a moment he actually hadn't recognized himself, and thought he was looking at one of the pirates beyond the glass.


The weeks of laboring at reconditioning the Carmichael had broadened his shoulders, leaned his waist and given him a couple of new scars on his hands, and he realized that he'd have to stop thinking of himself as unshaven and admit he had a beard - sun-bleached in irregular blond streaks, as was his hair, which for convenience he now wore pulled back into a tarred pigtail - but it was the deep cigar-hued tan, acquired during weeks of shirtless work under the tropical sun, that really made him look indistinguishable from the wild men around him.


Yeah, he thought, I'll sneak onto Uncle Sebastian's pirated estate and then when he's walking around, routing poachers from the shrubbery or whatever it is the gentry does around here, I'll rise up all fearsome-looking and menace him with a cutlass.


Then his savage grin turned sheepish, for he remembered the last time he'd talked to Beth Hurwood. She had once again managed to elude Leo Friend, and Shandy and she had gone walking south along the beach in the relaxed hour after dinner when the breeze was cooling and the parrots were fluttering in raucous flocks overhead. Shandy had told her about seeing himself in the mirror, and how he'd thought for a moment that he was seeing one of the members of Davies' crew; "One of the other members, I guess I should say," he had added, with perhaps just a touch of adolescent pride in his voice.


Beth had laughed indulgently and taken his hand. "You're not a member, John," she said. "Could you have killed those sailors, or shot old Captain Chaworth?"


Sobered, and hoping his tan would conceal the sudden reddening of his face, he had muttered, "No."


They had walked without speaking for a while then, and Beth didn't take her hand from his until they reached the careened Carmichael and had to turn around.


Pulling a little harder on the left oar to slant the boat toward shore, he looked over his right shoulder and saw Skank and the others waiting for him beside the stack of Carrara marble slabs, which was at least visibly lower now than it had been that morning. Behind them the white beach, dazzling in the afternoon glare, sloped up to the tawdry litter of tents and shacks, and beyond that to the jungle. A woman in a tattered purple dress was trudging along the top of the sand slope.


Venner waded out when Shandy had got the boat into the shallows, and Shandy climbed over the gunwale and helped him drag it up onto the sand.


"I could row the next few lots over if yer gettin' tired, Jack," said Venner, his smile as constant as the sunburn across his broad shoulders. Behind him stood Mr. Bird, the black man who frequently thought someone had called him a dog.


"Naw, 'at's all right, Venner," Shandy said, crouching to get a grip on the topmost marble slab. He hoisted it up, stumped stiff-legged and grimacing to the boat, and then slid the stone over the gunwale and onto the rear thwart, and from there to the floor. "At the Carmichael they're lowering me a stout net, and I just loop it around each block and then wave 'em to lift." He walked back to the stack as Skank edged past him, carrying another one of the blocks.


"Good," said Venner, taking the other side of the next block Shandy crouched over. "Take it easy and don't lose no sweat nor blood is my way."


Shandy squinted thoughtfully at Venner as the two of them shambled toward the boat. Venner never seemed to do quite his share of any hard work, but the man had prevented Shandy from being killed on that day when Davies took the Carmichael, and his avoid-all-strain philosophy tempted Shandy to confide his escape plan to him. Venner must regard the upcoming enterprise as at least a regrettable strain, and if Shandy was going to hide ashore until the Jenny and the Carmichael had left, and then re-emerge and wait for the arrival of the new governor from England, a partner who knew the island and its customs would be valuable indeed.


Mr. Bird had picked up one of the blocks and was shambling along behind them, peering around suspiciously. Shandy was about to ask Venner to meet him after this job was finished, to discuss some pragmatic applications of his philosophy, but he heard a scuffing from up the slope and turned to see who was approaching.


It was the woman in the purple dress, and when he and Venner had disposed of their block, Shandy shaded his eyes to look at her.


"Howdy, Jack," she said, and Shandy realized it was Jim Bonny's wife.


"Hello, Ann," he said. It annoyed him to realize that, even though she was a big, chunky teenager with crooked teeth, his chest felt suddenly chilly inside, and his heart was thudding like a hammer into soft dirt. Though in Beth Hurwood's company he was a little ashamed of his beard and tarred hair and deep-bitten tan, when Bonny's wife was around he was furtively proud of them.


"Still ballasting that thing?" she said, nodding past him at the Carmichael. She had learned the term while watching him work one afternoon a few days ago.


"Yeah," he said, walking up out of the water and trying not to stare at her breasts, clearly visible under her carelessly buttoned blouse. He forced himself to keep his mind on his job. "At least this is the last of it, the moveable ballast. The Carmichael was awfully crank - heeled something terrible coming over sharply in a strong wind. Almost spilled us all right over the side when she came around to face the Jenny that day." He recalled the breakfast table tumbling across the poop deck, and the napkins spinning away into the sea directly below where he and Beth had clung to the rail and each other - and then he realized that his gaze had drifted back to Ann's bosom. He turned to the stack and took hold of another slab.


"Sounds like an awful lot of work," Ann said. "Do you have to do quite so much of it?"


He shrugged. "The seas and the weathers are what is; your vessels adapt to them or sink." He lifted the slab, turned his back on her and shuffled toward the boat, where Mr. Bird and Skank were lowering one in. Venner was sitting on the beach, making a show of worriedly scrutinizing the bottom of his foot.


Shandy's pulse and breathing were loud in his head, so he idn't hear Ann splashing along right behind him; Skank and Mr. Bird strode back ashore, and when Shandy straightened up from laying down his block, and turned around, he found himself being kissed.


Ann's arms were around him and her mouth was open, and against his bare chest he could feel her nipples right through the fabric of her blouse; like most people on the island she smelled of sweat and liquor, but in her case it was with such a female tang that Shandy forgot his resolutions about her and forgot Beth and his father and his uncle, and just brought his arms up and pulled her closer. The girl, together with the hot sun on his back and the warm water around his ankles, seemed for a moment to moor him to the island like some tree, animated only by biological promptings and reflexes and not even minimally self-aware.


Then he recollected himself and lowered his arms; she stepped back, grinning at him.


"What," Shandy began to croak, "what," he went on more strongly, "was that for?"


She laughed. "For? For luck, man."


"Heads up, Jack," said Skank quietly.


Jim Bonny was floundering down the slope, his round face red under a dark cloth, and his boots kicking up plumes of white sand. "Shandy you son of a bitch!" he was squalling. "You goddamn sneaking son of a bitch!"


Though apprehensive, Shandy faced him. "What do you want, Jim?" he called evenly.


Bonny halted in front of his wife with his boots just short of the water, and for a moment he seemed about to hit her. Then he hesitated, and his gaze fell away from hers, and he scowled across at Shandy. He fumbled a clasp knife out of his pocket - Shandy stepped back, snatching at his own - but when Bonny had unfolded his blade he pressed the point into the tip of his own left forefinger and flicked the blade outward, throwing a couple of drops of blood toward Shandy, and at the same time he began chanting a nonsensical multi-language rhyme.


Shandy noticed that the sun was suddenly hotter - shockingly hotter - and then Skank had leaped onto Jim Bonny's back from behind and knocked him forward onto his knees in the water, and then hopped off and planted a bare foot between the shoulders of Bonny's coat and shoved him onto his face in the shallows.


Bonny was floundering and splashing and cursing, but the sudden sweat was cooling on Shandy's face and shoulders, and Skank waded in and kicked Bonny in the arm. "You ain't forgettin' any of the rules now, are you, Jim?" Skank asked. "No vodun offenses among us unless it's a declared duel, isn't that the way?" Bonny had been struggling to push himself up out of the water, but Skank kicked him again, harder, and he collapsed with a sputtering cry of protest.


Shandy glanced at Ann, and was a little surprised to see that she seemed concerned. Mr. Bird was watching with evident disapproval.


"You're no bocor" Skank went on, "and there's pickney infants on the island that could set your head blazing like a torch and laugh at any lame drogue you could make to stop 'em with, but Shandy's new and don't know nothin' about all that. You think Davies'll be pleased if I tell him about this?"


Bonny had scuttled away, and now floundered to his feet. "But - but he was kissin' my - "


Skank threateningly took a step forward. "Think he will?"


Bonny retreated, splashing. "Don't tell him," he muttered.


"Get out of here," Skank told him. "Ann - you too."


Without meeting Shandy's eye, Ann followed her sopping husband back up the slope.


Shandy turned to Skank. "Thanks ... for whatever."


"Ah, you'll learn." Skank looked toward the rowboat. "It's sitting low," he said. "One more block ought to make this load."


Shandy walked up to the rough wooden sled the marble blocks sat on - and then noticed Venner, who had not even stood up during the entire altercation. The man was smiling as amiably as ever, but all at once Shandy decided not to confide the escape plan to him.


Chapter Four


Because the Carmichael was to leave next morning, the talk around the fires that night was a fantastic fabric of speculations, warnings and impossible stories. Jack Shandy, insulated from the anxiety felt by the rest of Davies' crew, nevertheless listened with great interest to stories of ships crewed by zombies and glimpsed only at midnight by doomed men, of various magical precautions that would be necessary in Florida, so far from the protection of Mate Care-For and the rest of the vodun loas, of the Spaniards they might encounter in the Gulf of Mexico, and what tactics to use against them; old legends were retold, and Shandy heard the story of the pirate Pierre le Grand, who with a tiny boat and a handful of men took a galleon of the Spanish plate fleet fifty years earlier, and he heard a spirited version of the four-hour sea battle between the English Charlotte Bailey and the Spanish Nuestra Senora de Lagrimas, which ended with the sinking of both ships, and then for a while the pirates tried to outdo each other with stories about the suck-you-byes, female demons that weirdly and erotically occupied the last hours of men marooned on barren islands.


And the Carmichael was supposed to rendezvous with Blackbeard's Queen Ann's Revenge in Florida, and so there was lots of gossip about that most colorful pirate chief, and speculations about why he was returning to that uncivilized shore where, a year or two ago, he had gone far inland in search of some sort of sorcerous power-focus and had come limping out days later, unsuccessful, sick, and infested with the ghosts that now plagued him as fleas would a dog.


Shandy had cooked up his best dinner yet, and, full and slightly drunk, was very much enjoying the evening ... until he noticed the other members of the crew, the ones that weren't bravely drinking and laughing around the fire. Several had shuffled off to the sailcloth tents, and once when the wind slacked Shandy thought he heard quiet sobbing from that direction, and he saw Skank sitting in the dimness under a palm tree, carefully sharpening a dagger, an expression of intent concentration - almost of sadness - on his young face.

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