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The dust of 100 dogs, p.15
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.15

           A. S. King
 
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  I was frightened of the hordes of people gathered at the roadside, yelling to the taxi man. I was afraid of the erratic and dangerous drivers, the roads pockmarked with huge potholes. I grew so paranoid that I shivered with cold, even in the still, tropical air. Each time the taxi stopped, poor people approached—selling, begging, singing, smiling. Some stood back and glared at me through the window glass.

  When I reached my hotel in Negril, a barb-wired compound guarded by men with walkie-talkies, a man showed me to my room. He seemed nice, but as my mouth asked him questions and my hand shook his, my eyes still perched somewhere else, fearing the worst of everything. No one seemed trustworthy. I locked my door and sat on the bed, listening to the squeaky ceiling fan above my head.

  I even chickened out of going to dinner in the hotel restaurant and ordered room service. It was as if I had left Emer back in Hollow Ford, just when I needed her most.

  I fell asleep early, feeling pathetic and stupid.

  But I woke up determined.

  After a breakfast of fruit and cocoa bread, I began my journey southeast, heaving my army duffel bag into a snorkeling boat I chartered to take me slowly to the next coastal town. That night, in an attempt to reclaim my courage, I went to a small live reggae show and danced a little. I met two girls there from Ohio who’d just graduated too, and even though we had nothing in common, I hung out with them for a few hours. Emer would have wanted to feed them their own giggly livers, but I still couldn’t find her anywhere.

  The next day as I ate my fruity breakfast, I looked at the other tourists eating their breakfasts. I imagined feeding the fat guy’s eyeball to the skinny urbanite with the Brooklyn accent. I scalped my waitress and secured her curly hair to the now one-eyed fat guy. If Emer would only show up, she’d think this stuff was hilarious. But she didn’t.

  When I found a crusty boatman and secured the next leg of my journey, I imagined stealing the boat from him. I imagined holding his dreadlocked head under the water’s surface. How he’d shake and quiver. How the sharks would eat him. Still, no Emer.

  Later that day, when Billy’s Bay appeared in front of me, I felt her stir in my ribs. I let the boatman pass and then asked him to turn around, so I could see the bay again.

  “Can you take me there?” I asked, pointing to the empty beach.

  He found the one route to shore between the jagged reefs and stopped the boat. I paid him and he nodded, smiling with three teeth, and then he steered the boat out again into the calm sea and headed back west.

  I watched him disappear, and felt frozen. I had followed my nose this far, and had no idea what to do next. I walked toward an arrow-shaped sign advertising a hostel and followed it, uphill on a path that cut through a thick grove of grape trees. When I arrived at the hostel, an adobe-type place built to withstand hurricanes and covered in blooming vines, I met the jovial owner, Hector, who showed me to his only spare room and talked loudly over cranked-up Bob Marley.

  “Great view from the balcony,” he said, pointing at the sliding doors. “Come down when you’re hungry. We can cook up any time of day, mon.” He took a loud hit from the enormous spliff in his hand and blew the sweet-smelling smoke from his nose.

  “Thanks,” I said, looking out to sea, still half frozen with doubt.

  “I hope you don’t mind good reggae, girl. We love our roots here, ya know.”

  “Yeah, that’s fine, thanks,” I managed.

  When he closed the door, I locked it behind him and sat down on the bed. Every part of me wanted to burst into miserable tears, but instead I emptied my duffel bag on the quilted bedspread and looked at my stuff. I unfolded the army shovel and stared at myself in the mirror again, waiting to catch a glimpse of the woman who’d dragged me here—but all I saw was some skinny kid from Hollow Ford who was fooling herself.

  Emer looked the three hungry recruits up and down. “So, you’re saving for a ship of your own, then, are you?”

  The three men were still adjusting to Emer’s breasts—beneath her blouse, but visible for the first time in over a year. They looked over at David as if he had asked the question, but David kept his eyes fixed on his captain.

  One man nodded. The other two still looked at David.

  “Now, tell me about this ‘savings.’ I’m sure you lads have plenty of stories about it. Let’s hear them.”

  “We haven’t much, um, ma’am.”

  “Sir. I’m your captain. You call me sir.”

  “Sir.”

  “You haven’t much compared to what? Compared to us? Compared to the Spanish?”

  “We haven’t much compared to the price of a ship, sir.”

  “David says you brag of a spot near Havana—a spot to cruise for Spanish?”

  The three men looked at each other, dumbfounded.

  “You know, Captain won’t hesitate to kill you,” David said.

  One man piped up. “We followed a small fleet last September.”

  “West of Havana?” Emer asked.

  “About seventy miles southwest, sir.”

  “And then what?”

  “We just followed them. We were working a slave ship. We were on our way to Havana as well.”

  “A slave ship?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Are you as cruel as all that? I don’t think you are, somehow.”

  “We left that ship as soon as we got to Havana, sir. Slaving wasn’t for us.” The other two men shook their heads in agreement.

  “So what of the Spanish fleet?”

  “Well, uh, Michael here saw them unloading many crates of gold, sir, and gems.”

  She turned to Michael. “You saw these gems?”

  He nodded.

  “Did you see the gems?”

  The talking man answered. “No, sir. I only knew from Michael about the gems. But I did see much gold, and many jeweled rings on the officer’s fingers. I do not doubt the fleet is heavy with such things on its way back to Spain.”

  “How many were there?”

  “About fifteen in all. Mostly galleons and frigates. I counted over thirty cannons on a typical galleon, twenty on the frigates.”

  “Twenty, eh? I’d say that slows them down a bit, carrying so much iron.”

  “They beat us to port anyway, sir, and we had but a ship of slaves with no guns at all.”

  Emer shivered. “Enough about slaves. Let’s not mention them again.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  She sat still and thought for a minute. Fifteen ships, an average of twenty cannons each. That was three hundred guns in total. “Three hundred guns? What a fight that would be! And you think you could take them with a ship your savings can buy? Surely even idiots like you must have a better plan than that.”

  The man stayed silent and looked back at David.

  “Stop looking at David! Your own mouth has put you here, understand! I would have no reason to ask you any of this had it not been for your jabbering.”

  “We hoped to recruit other ships and form a fleet, sir.”

  “Go on.”

  “We hoped to recruit pirates in Port Royal and Roatan. We hoped to get back to Tortuga and find willing buccaneers to join us. So many people here hate the Spanish. We think it will be easy to find them.”

  Emer tapped her lips with her fingers. “Seventy miles southwest of Havana, eh?”

  “Aye, sir.”

  “And what would I see if I cruised there now?”

  “The Spanish bring ships to Havana from Campeche all year long. That’s the port a hundred miles southwest of Merida, on the Yucatan, sir.” He stopped and looked at Emer, who nodded. “In Campeche we saw seven small fluytes loading with treasure.”

  “You did?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  She looked each ma
n up and down slowly, then handed them a few gold coins. “Say nothing ’til you hear more, lads.”

  The men looked at their money and shrugged. David walked with them to the ladder and returned to the doorway. Emer still paced the cabin, looking serious.

  “After we get some more supplies, guns, and men, we will go to this Campeche and see what we can see.”

  “It was generous of you to pay the men for their reports, sir.”

  Emer laughed. “I didn’t pay them for that. I paid them to stay loyal and to shut up. Hell, I didn’t believe a word they said but for the slave ship. Tell me, why is it that men who work those infernal ships always look half dead afterward? Could you see it in their eyes, David?” David nodded. He’d seen it. “But the rest? All bullshit, I reckon. Just some story they heard from other sailors on a different ship.”

  Emer lay down on the small bunk and propped her head on several lumpy pillows. She pulled her cape from under the wooden frame and continued repairing the worn hems at its base. This was as good as a nap. It relaxed her and made her think of her mother.

  Her plan to begin sinking Spanish ships southwest of Havana excited her and depressed her. Still lost without Seanie, she knew that gold would never fill the hole his absence had left in her. She had no need for fineries. No want for drink or whores. No knack for gambling. But why not try something new? And the sailor was right—the Spanish needed to be harnessed. They’d taken nearly all of the Caribbean for themselves, and did nothing but spoil the place and make slaves of its people! She would take on a private crusade to send King Philip a message. Finally, she might find a way to rid herself of the bad blood that coursed through her orphaned veins—and finally, she might wreak revenge on a dragon.

  There was a knock just before daybreak.

  “Captain, a ship to the south has spotted us,” David said through the door. “And we’ve hit wind.”

  “Tell the men to stand ready,” she answered. If for no other reason, she’d have to attack the coming ship for food or else her men would start dropping. Yet she felt fear and revenge deep in her empty belly.

  After seventeen days stuck in the light air, the Emerald had picked up its pace. The approaching ship flew no flag, and Emer assumed it was the Frenchman. (Every ship that approached, since Emer left Tortuga, was the imaginary Frenchman.) The thought of him made her stomach turn and growl. But now she had a choice other than running.

  David lined the gunners up and divided ammunition between them. He made sure the sailors knew which way to tack to get ahead of the wind and knew when to turn. And mostly, he made sure each recruit had a belly full of rum and a stark reminder: if we don’t take this ship, we won’t eat until we dock again.

  Emer arrived as the port cannons fired. Surprisingly, the approaching ship did not fire back but continued heading toward the Emerald, on course to ram her. The crew turned the Emerald around and fired the starboard guns. Emer aimed a long-barreled musket and fired. She continued this until the boats met with a mighty crash, and then pulled the sharp cutlass from her waist and began to butcher.

  Men piled onto the ship. At first, it looked like her crew would be badly outnumbered, but Emer soon realized that the men coming aboard knew little about fighting. Some didn’t even have weapons. Emer injured three in her first strike, by holding her blade horizontally and spinning around, slashing an eye, two ears, and a neck. All three men fell to the deck and screamed for help.

  Her men were having a similarly easy time in the brawl. Some even had enough time to stop and mutilate their adversary before moving on to the next one. Emer continued to drop one man after another, looking around when she could for their leader. What captain would send weak, untrained men into such a battle? For what reason? Emer feared she knew that reason. She feared that she was the reason. She could almost smell the French bastard where she stood.

  The battle took less than an hour. David ordered the men onto the ship to fetch food and find its captain. Emer watched from the forecastle. When the men returned with no captain and no food, David looked to Emer for instructions. She rose and walked to the ropes, boarded the ship, and returned five minutes later with a crate.

  The men stood on deck, still surrounded by dead and dying sailors, passing a bucket of rum around. “It’s not without regret when I tell you there was no food on board,” she said. The men noted Emer’s voice and her tapered waistline. Had the three bragging sailors been telling the truth that morning? Was their captain really a woman?

  “But I want you to take a good look at this,” Emer said, kicking the crate out toward the men. “From now on, this will be our cargo! This will be our reward!”

  When no men approached the crate, but instead stood gawking at her sweat-drenched figure, Emer bent down and opened it. David reached in with both hands and pulled an array of jewels and gold trinkets out. A string of pearls emptied onto the deck and rolled under the crew’s feet, scattering. Then the men began to cheer, one by one. A sailor threw his hat in the air. Another hugged the man next to him. Another jumped up and down all by himself, feeling the rum sloshing round his very empty belly. They would be rich. They would be famous. They would be respected.

  All of a sudden, there was a rush for the pearls. Nearly every man was on his knees, snatching as many as he could. One man threw himself down on top of ten or more, searching with his one hand under him. Another stepped on hands that tried to reach out. Another punched a sailor for stealing what he claimed was his.

  Emer stopped the melee by firing her pistol. She ordered the men to attention.

  “Why are you squabbling over tiny pearls, men? Are you not savvy? We’ll divide this cache as we would any other—each of us getting our share.”

  One man called out, “I want my share now!”

  “Dewey has four, sir! He’s not allowed four if I can’t have one!”

  Emer looked at her crew and saw children. So she did what any fair mother would do. She made the men return all the pearls, and then gave one to each crew member to keep for the night, to exchange later for his fair share. This arrangement seemed to make the crew happy, and allowed them to get back to work and move the ship closer to the Cayman Islands—where an imagined feast awaited them.

  Emer walked to her quarters and met David, who had moved the crate there and emptied it onto her bunk. They marveled.

  “A ship full of starving men, David. That’s all they were.”

  “Rich starving men,” he corrected her. He winked and walked from the room, still rolling a small pearl between his finger and thumb.

  Emer was alone with her first pile of treasure. At first, she stared. Then, she laughed so hard she cried. Then, she bolted the door and undressed down to her knickers, rolled herself on top of the jewels, and fell into a rum-induced nap.

  Before docking the Emerald at the Caymans, Emer gathered her men on deck. “Any man who brags of booty will be left behind to find a new captain. Is that clear?” Most of the men nodded in agreement. She motioned to David and he began giving each man a handful of silver in exchange for their single pearl. “This is for tonight. Tomorrow you’ll each receive your full share.”

  Once the crew was gone, Emer and David lifted the crate and headed toward the town’s market. After finding a trader giving a fair price for their jewels, they returned to the ship to lighten their large load of coin. Emer had purchased a sack of fruit and two fully cooked fowl, and stayed on board to relieve the three starving men she’d left to guard the ship. Three hours later, David returned, allowing her to go on her own shopping trip.

  After buying enough supplies for their scouting journey to Campeche on the Spanish Main, and directing the shipments to the dock, Emer found two small shops. The first was a clothier, a fine clothier who sold many great garments. She bought two cotton blouses, several sets of knickers, a pair of wide-legged trousers and a rather fancy hat. She
looked over his selection of capes and chose two. Both black, one only inches longer than the other, they were perfectly plain and ready for embroidering. On an adjacent back street, Emer found a man who sold all types of thread and fabric. She bought two bunches of every color he offered, several packets of tint, a ground bark that would darken the shade of the thread, and three more needles.

  On her way back to the boat, she stopped outside the tavern and listened to her men singing drunken songs, then headed back to the dock. David had tidied the ship and done inventory. They would be ready to go once they sold the captured brig and restocked their ammunition in the morning.

  “Do you think the men will object to leaving tomorrow?” Emer asked.

  David shrugged. “They’ll do what we tell ’em. They’re loyal.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t trust any of them.” Emer poured them both a mug of strong Cayman rum. “I reckon I only trust you.”

  “Well, that’s a start.”

  They sat on deck together and watched the stars appear, drinking for an hour until David leaned his head on Emer’s shoulder and breathed loudly. “You know, we would make a good pair.”

  Emer laughed. “I think you’ll need to go ashore for that, David.”

  “Admit it!” he said, rubbing his stubbly jaw. “We would!”

  She looked at him. His eyes were bright blue, with long lashes, and he had lines round his mouth from smiling and the sun. His arms were strong and his hands were rough from a lifetime of hard work. He kept his dirty-blond hair tied in a tail down his back, and was usually clean-shaven. He was as handsome as Seanie—but he wasn’t Seanie.

  “Maybe in another time and place, but not here, friend. Here, we’re comrades. That’s all.”

  “You must crave a man after so long at sea! You aren’t made of glass, are you?”

  Emer stopped laughing and felt sad.

  “Are you?” David pressed.

  She sat up straight and tried to look serious. David noticed this and did the same, looking into her eyes and squinting drunkenly.

 
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