We lost two men to the press gangs on the docks at Montego Bay and had barely enough hands left to run the rigging when we set sail. They could have used mine for the last of the provisioning but after having toiled this long and come this far on the Antelope already, Barrett could hire local boys for that. We sailed in the morning but tonight I walked the ruddy shore, out on the scarred beach looking at the sea.
The air smelled of brine and smoke and spilled wine, and the horizon was exalting the last few streaks of colour before the sun disappeared completely. It might be the last time I stood on dry land for a long time. It might be the last time I stood on dry land at all.
It was hard not to think that Elcid Barrett was a bit of a bastard. The Antelope was a dog of a seafaring vessel, and her promises were as leaky as her hull. From the moment I saw that boat I thought I ought to switch saints; it was not the patron of fisherman that I needed watching over me whilst boarding such a lost cause as the Antelope. But with five brothers before me, prospects were limited if I didn't take to the sea.
The pinched alleys and markets where I earlier procured my own provisions, a full flask and a full belly to start, was buzzing with chatter about a grand wedding, so I couldn't help but know the source of the music and shrill laughter I could hear coming from over the hill. Local nobility of some description, names I didn't know and would forget by the time we set sail.
It seemed as though I was not the only one who thought it more an intrusion than a celebration; I was alone on the shore only for as long as it took a young woman to crest the hill and gingerly find a path down the steep cliff face. She walked as though the path were made of shards of glass instead of sand, and kept her back to the upwind celebrations even when it made her journey an awkward one.
"Ahoy," I called out, waving into the near-darkness so she didn't think herself alone on the shore and conduct herself accordingly. She waved back, picking her way over the soft sand towards me. I wasn't looking for company, but I'd have to be a bigger fool than I already knew myself to be for signing on to this crew in the first place to turn it down.
"Not enjoying the nuptials?"
She gave me a sad smile and ducked her head and didn't answer what was, to be fair, a prying question. I didn't ask it again, and let her stand with me in silence. When a crab came scuttling up the wet sand from the surf, she turned on one foot to remove herself from its path and executed a perfect, breathtaking pirouette. If I'd been a man of more culture, it might have brought a tear to my eye.
"You're too lovely to be on a dark shore with a strange sailor," I told her, but she just shrugged and smiled out at the sea and in that moment I felt I had found with her a certain quiet kinship. Anyone who loved the sea enough to wear that look on her face when she gazed upon it was someone who was anything but an intrusion on my last night on shore.
She sat down then, and I sat with her, between a pair of long and rocky outcroppings that tore up through the sand.
"I don't think I'm ever going to see my home again," I told her, for she looked kind and I had no one else to tell. She nodded her head and looked at me sideways, through a thin veil of hair, and I saw in her expression not just comprehension but empathy. Agreement.
I don't think I'm going to see my home again either.
I signed on to the Antelope to plunder untold riches, and now I was going to perish aboard that good-for-nothing excuse for a vessel as surely as I breathed the sea air. It would take a miracle to survive in the lawless seas, and miracles were in short supply in wartime.
Another woman would have told me to stay, to desert, to dodge my fate aboard that leaky, slovenly vessel, but she seemed to understand that it was just that: fate. That I could no more dodge it than slit my own mother's throat. That things were already set in motion that could not be undone.
She wrote her name in the sand with her fingertip; I told her my Christian name in return, the one none of the Antelope crew used.
"Life's not really just, is it?" I said, and she sighed and nodded and brushed a kiss against my cheek.
We stayed until long after dark, she and I, and I was gentlemanly in both thought and deed. Though she was a great beauty, she was also a fragile one. There was pain and loneliness in her face, which I only recognised because there had, at times, been pain and loneliness in my own as well.
I sought my fortune on the open seas, but fortune stalked me in return.
She never spoke a word but she said as much as I did, and when she finally got up from the sand, looked at last up the hill towards the still-rising celebration, it was with a pose of pride and determination. The posture of a woman ready to face a fate of her own.
"I'll not forget this evening," I told her as she went. I would cherish it and hold it close to my heart where it could not be sullied by the insinuations of a crew of privateers.
We set sail on a clear morning and spirits were high. The Antelope had been patched and the wind was good and from the crow's nest we quickly spied a Yankee mark, riding low in the waters as she headed to sea. I let myself believe, for those hours and days we made chase, that perhaps my melancholy musings had been off the mark.
Until the Yankee vessel fired her first shot and all was clearly lost. The mast splintered and burst and crushed no few crew on its way down, and I was thrown across the deck with a chest full of shrapnel.
The destruction of the main sail and my own ravaged body were the last things I remembered seeing.
As I pitched over the slide of the Antelope, a gallon of my blood hitting the water before I did, I thought of her, that young woman on the beach. I thought of her kind smile and the lonesome pitch of her body and as I closed my eyes against the fathoms of sea below me I imagined I would be falling into her welcoming arms as the sea foam cradled my body and welcomed me home.