The storm was riding high in the sky, a tempest of gusting winds and torrential rain blending in a violent mix of raging weather and nature’s fury. The clouds were as dark as smoke, massive formations of grey fog with long tornado shaped tendrils which reached out and gripped the spring daylight in its shadowy embrace. The air stunk of electricity and ozone, as though having been belched forth from an angry volcano, spewing its hot and venomous billows of dense coughs into the air at not having a fine young virgin tossed into its molten stomach. Streaks of lightening and roars of thunder rode the ripples of condensation in a rollercoaster display of power and madness running along the skyline.
For an early afternoon, the sun was shielded from the world below, surrounding the ocean’s horizon with a twilight pall of blue and purple gloom. The dark sky was traced below by a horizon of undulating water as the ocean surged, splashed and fumed in large troughs and bows, pushing powerfully at the ship’s wales with its massive walls of thrusting aquatic force.
The rain swept like a blanket across the bow of the ship, covering all it touched, as the wind tore across the deck in long powerful gales, sending shockwaves of energy throughout the sails as the ship rocked and rode the waves seeking purchase and dominion, but most importantly, remaining afloat.
The first mast on the ship pulled and thrust with defiance, fighting an invisible tug of war with Mother Nature. And with the ferocity for which the wooden boards creaked and groaned in pain, this poor man-made vessel had to assume the mistress of the sea had lost her temper and was having a tantrum.
On the deck, salt and sea spraying across his face, the air gusting past his brow, rustling the coarse hairs of his thick and well kept beard, steadfastly refusing to leave the helm, stood the invincible Captain Estefan Rodriguez Rios.
Master and lord of this ship.
He had both hands on the wheel, large meaty paws with thick hairy fingers, gripping the bar with power, held firm but with a loving embrace, as the Captain did not blame the fighting controls on the ship. He blamed it on the ocean. Holding steadfast to his position to which he was committed, he refused to give in. No woman had tamed him before today, and the sea herself would not be the first.
He stood at six two with broad shoulders and chest which seemed could bear the weight of the ship itself if forced to get out and carry his vessel out of these raging waters on his back. His tanned skin, pock-marked from a minor smallpox outbreak in 1856, was ruggedly handsome, bronzed by many days at sunny seas, and icy blue eyes which could make most mutineers dive over the sides in fear to suffer the fate of the deep as opposed to his fury.
At his waist to his right, he wore his 1805 Harper Ferry Flintlock pistol, a gift from a soldier he saved from the seas years before when the man’s ship was taken by pirates and he was tossed overboard. It was a .54 caliber gun known for its single shot capacity, and the Captain only needed one based on his marksmanship. He carried it always with him for luck.
However his weapon of choice was his finely crafted and constantly cleaned sword. A single handed Navy Cutlass with a 27 7/8” blade, leather handle with an iron forged basket hilt for smooth motion, easy gripping and more importantly, resting his hand upon when strapped to his left side, in its sheath, waiting to be drawn, to make the Captain appear intimidating as though it could be pulled and swung in seconds.
His greatest feature, and his favourite, a fully brushed beard and mustache which rode long and heavy over his face, from ear to ear, to the middle of his chest. He kept it cleaned daily, brushed lovingly by himself, curled in many areas, causing him to be known as ‘Brown-beard’ to his crew.
Rios loved his facial mane, as he felt it gave him sustenance. Many a day he could be found running his fingers through it, slowly, constantly and gracefully. It was his tell during the course of ship inspections. With a quiet revere, when noting ship reviews and orders, the crew knew they would find his left hand pulling through it when he was pleased and his right when something needed correction.
Rios always knew the right course, or best decision, after he touched his hairy oracle, as though some divine answer could always be found hidden in the dark folds and strands.
Like Samson, his hair gave him strength and no Delilah would free him of this gift without the loss to her life.
Rios stared straight ahead, focused and determined, yelling forth in his mind to the sea. ‘My Love. Why so angry? What can I do this night for you to give us clear way?’
All seamen and sailors are a superstitious lot with good reason.
When the sea chose to have a spasm, boats and crews could vanish in seconds, without a trace, forever lost, drawn down into the cruel and cold folds of the water’s depths.
So be vigilant, be skilled, but most of all, be wary as the sea cannot be predicted or trusted.
Tonight, if Rios could help it, its hunger for more souls would be sedated.
Rios knew this large sea faring craft better than any, from its one hundred and eighty six foot long body to its wooden beams which rode fifty feet high on the water. She held a depth of twenty one feet and had a displacement of over two thousand burthens when fully stocked.
Any good Captain knew about his ship when placing his trust and faith in her, especially when living in her belly for as long as he had. Such devotion was not given blindly. He could tell the men how many slats made up the deck, how many scratches on the rudder and how many ropes it took to hold her steady. She, the ship, and him, were one and the same and like any woman, needed his constant love and attention to ensure fury was not reined upon them.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Rios’ ship had three primary masts and a square rig. It had an armament of one hundred guns, always ready and waiting for a possible attack, with a complement of eight hundred with thirty men under his command and space for twenty more.
Her sister ship, the Victory, was laid down in 1759 in the Chatham Dockyard and launched in 1765.
Rios’ ship, the Serenade as she was called, was launched in 1772 still riding strong to this day.
With such a ship, usually British Captains took the helm, but Rios’ reputation and history in helping the royal family earned him much respect and rewards over the years, which included this berth.
He was awarded this ship by royal declaration, something no seaman would ever argue, especially with their Queen, Victoria.
Rios spun the wheel and used his keen sense of the sea to follow the valley of waves, deftly and smoothly moving between their rises and falls with ease and control, knowing the sea was not after his ship this night as had she wanted it, take it she would.
The night was long and stress filled. Rios and his men repeatedly had the sails pulled and raised, from the head to the foot of the sail, to take benefit of wind gusts, bursts and opportunities, but tenderly to ensure the weight of the water did not tear the tightly woven material into shreds leaving them at God’s mercy.
The men dragged hard, keeping ropes pulled taut on the masts, but also tied about their bodies and to posts to ensure they were not brushed overboard in the storm and lost.
As time wore on, like any rage, eventually, it subsided.
The winds dissipated, the clouds in the sky lessened, and the sun seemed to melt the fury of the sea’s anger, warming her heart and soul, reminding her of the good times, and inviting her to let sailors pass.
Rios smiled openly, having won yet another battle.
Within minutes of the storm’s departure, his first officer joined him on deck, Scott MacTaggart, a fine Scotsman, with a five foot eleven height, thick build and a mane of red hair that seemed his scalp was constantly on fire. Unlike his Captain, his face was free of furry obstructions, as smooth as a baby’s bottom as he liked to mention.
And liked Rios like to retort. ‘And why would any man want to look like a baby’s bottom. It was usually always full of shit.’
This would always be followed by deep bellied laughs, clanking canteens of lager and joviality. This was how it was when living at sea.
McTaggart knew the seas better than most, and had Rios lost his maps, compass and the stars above, he knew, MacTaggart would still find the way home.
He nodded to his trusted crewman as he departed the deck to clean himself up and dry off.
A few hours later, Rios returned.
His clothes were clean, his hair dry and his weapons on his sides, at ready. He wore a heavy wool vest over a thin white smock which kept him cool at the extremities, but his chest warm in the chilly sea winds. He had come forth from his cabin and took a deep cleansing breath, filled with salty air and freshness, which invigorated his lungs, skin and his entire body.
He loved the morning after a storm.
Rios nodded to his first officer who maintained the helm at a steady pace.
The sun was high in the sky, the clouds dissipating as though they never existed, and his crew were working hard and diligently to clean the outer ship, dry the decks, examine the hull for damage, secure the masts and review the sails for any tears or rips caused from the night previous that would slow this massive vehicle in its course.
Rios had a fine crew and ones he would trust his life with.
For the past few months, they had delivered a large selection of supplies to the New World, but on the return home, they chose to sail South for the pleasure of it, running along the coasts, searching for new things, and to sail the waters blue.
Most Captains may have a schedule, and orders from their owners, but sometimes, the sea simply called forth, ‘Come play with me for a while.’
And no Captain ever disappointed his mistress.
Owners and companies were bureaucrats with money. People with rubber stamps and ledgers dictating dates and deliveries to their employees. But they, like true sea legged men, knew the sea was beyond control, sometimes slowed movement, caused delays and prevented expedience, which allowed many Captains the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the seas.
This little tour South was one such dalliance.
As Rios moved up and down the upper quadrants of his ship, examining the damage, a young lieutenant, Thomas Tatum, no more than twenty three, with blond hair, thin build and green eyes which always seemed filled with awe in Rios’ presence, intruded on the Captain’s inspection.
“Sir?” He spoke so sheepishly, he seemed like he would lose the oxygen in his lungs if he kept talking. “Captain Rios?”
Rios wanted his men to feel comfortable around him, able to talk to him as both a friend, but also a confidante, but always knowing he was still their commander.
However some, no matter how hard he tried, remained intimidated by his rank and stature, which by nature, was hard to overcome for new sailors.
Rios turned, brushing his beard with his left hand, to indicate to the man he was in a good mood.
The sailor, Thomas to his mates, smiled at the gesture. “Sir. We have a ship on the starboard bow.”
Rios seemed undaunted by this. “Not hard to imagine with this storm. We may see a few more.” He looked across the seascape. “I’m rather pleased at having more than one vessel make it through last night’s exhibition.”
Thomas paused, seeming to rethink his statement and what to say, but then, knowing what he had seen, offered the truth anyway.
Rios liked that in a sailor. Stand up for yourself as no one else would offer.
Thomas began. “Yes. But I’ve been watching her through the telescope for the past hour.” He paused. “McTaggart let me use it.”
Rios sighed inwardly, sad the seaman thought he had to justify why he used ship’s equipment.
Thomas continued. “And there appears to be no one on their deck.”
At this Rios seemed amused. “Young man. Be assured, even had God himself come down from the heavens to throw water at that ship, there would be someone on the deck to slosh it back off.”
Turning in the direction of port, out in the distance, Thomas stared. He waited a few seconds before offering a reply. Once he felt a long enough time had passed, Thomas offered, “In that, I would agree Sir.” He stressed ‘Sir.’
‘Nervousness was a bane this man would have to deal with.’ Rios thought.
Thomas completed his report. “But I never let my eyes leave her. For the past hour, no one has moved, wandered or even opened a shutter to look out. That and she is heading South, with the tide, not changing the course. From what I see, the ship appears to be adrift.”
At this, Rios was now intrigued. He never suspected a crewman to lie, especially about something so easily disproven, and an abandoned ship at sea was always a welcome prize.
Presuming he could convince the crew to go aboard.
Many of them would see an abandoned ship at sea as a ghost ship, a devil ridden scourge to bait unwary sailors, not unlike the Flying Dutchman, travelling the ocean for all who see her to be doomed to damnation.
Rios was not a man who succumbed to such fairytales, believing such things as sea monsters, sea devils or the like.
But then again, because he never saw one before never meant they did not exist.
Rios followed the young Thomas to the helm where he was handed the telescope by the quartermaster. When fully extended, three shafts, the scope could see almost anywhere.
In the distance, Rios spotted her. All ships were a ‘her’ in his eyes.
Another ship floating on the water.
He recognized her design.
As a Captain of the British Royal Navy, it was his duty to know such things.
It reminded him of the famous frigate from the War of 1812. A ship which due to the American battle, forced the British to build two comparable ships, the Newcastle and the Leander, each of sixty guns, built from fir wood and double banked with massive gun decks.
Sadly, they were built with a soft wood for short term use, which in the eyes of this Captain, was a travesty.
‘If you built her to ride the seas, she should be created to last.’ He thought.
Equally as sad, these ships were built to initiate and instill hostilities, not maintain peacetime establishment.
As Rios maintained his offsite inspection, he determined, unlike the Newcastle, this vessel appeared to have a length of one hundred and eighty feet, at least based on his first estimates. He could also see three solid masts and a square rig, not unlike his own, with an armament of sixty guns to her sides as expected.
None were at ready, aimed or set to fire.
And like the Serenade, it too appeared to have been battered by the night’s storm, but in a worse way. Her sails seemed torn and misshapen, like they were left aloft to bear the brunt of the storm without adjustments or control. Her deck was a mess of debris, which no good Captain would tolerate.
When Rios yelled, “Swab the Decks” he damn well meant it. It not being done was followed by quick and heavy pulls with his right hand on his beard. This was their home, so clean it they shall.
But also unlike Rios’ ship, this one was riding higher on the water, unhampered by weight, dampened at many points as Rios could see the sun reflecting off puddles which had formed in areas. She seemed forlorn and lilting, yet luckily still afloat.
And exactly as Thomas had pointed out. Not a single soul was in sight.
’How very, very strange.’ Rios thought. Then projecting the question in his mind to the ship. ’Who are you and why are you here?’
Rios turned to his first officer. “Steer us a course toward that ship. She seems to be in need of assistance.”
McTaggart was wary, as Scotsmen were even more superstitious than the normal sailor, on the waters and beyond. He asked, cautiously. “Is that a good idea Captain?”
Rios replied. “It’s the rule of the sea. You always help a ship in need.”
McTaggart adjusted his course, deep in his mind, thinking. ’God help us all if she is in need of fresh blood.’
They circled the ship once, which was easy as the silent craft was drifting along under very little momentum.
McTaggart pointed out right away when he spotted it. “The anchor appears to have been cut free.”
Rios looked out in the direction McTaggart was staring.
The mooring line was indeed shredded and torn, dangling halfway up the side of the ship, the anchor having fallen free from its weakened leash. As Rios could plainly see, it had not been smoothly cut either. It was not like it was sliced by a broadsword, nor an axe, but it appeared as though it had been hacked off, or even bitten off by a sea creature, which had chewed with such ferocity on the ship’s lines, it only escaped with the anchor, leaving the rest of the ship barely scathed.
Rios had them drop anchor on her starboard side.
Rios commanded the crew take station on the rails and rope his ship to the opposing ship’s side, positioning planks between the two seagoing vessels for his crew to cross over.
Once side by side, ships parallel to one another, bridges built, made for easy access, Rios stared across, his right hand brushing his beard.
His deck was now overloaded with sailors, crew, mess staff, a few soldiers and many of those who had spent the night in battle with Rios fighting the storm, though thoroughly exhausted, they all wanted to see what had led them to this abandoned vessel.
Rios chose a team of his ten strongest men, hardened sailors with rock solid demeanors, excellent reflexes and good temperaments, which when facing the unknown was an asset some explorers did not have.
The armory master, Lt. Curtis Corn, was an older British soldier with pure white hair, green eyes and a small stature. However, his size was nothing compared to the vast stores of knowledge that filled his mind on weapons of any sort. If it could be used to kill, he understood its design, power and use. Corn had a gift to always know which tool, as they were all tools in his mind, as the user made it the weapon, was best fitted for which man. Arming a man with something he could not wield was paramount to shooting him yourself Corn always commented.
Corn outfitted the ten men with pistols and swords, easy to draw, and quick to parry.
Not Rios as he preferred his own.
Corn provided an equal complement of rifles and muskets to a team of twenty more men who would stay stationed on the Serenade, drawn and aimed at the mysterious ship, ready to fire in case anything occurred for which Rios’ team was unprepared.
The ship’s doctor, Samuel LaFleur, also asked to come aboard. He was a soft spoken Frenchman with a tight pile of short black hair on his scalp, brushed gently into a neat style. He had a solid swimmer’s physique, which was well hidden by his long sleeved shirts, matching pants and high top leather boots. He had a small and feminine face with rounded edges, brown eyes and delicate hands which were perfect when performing surgeries or saving the crew.
Rios and his team crossed over slowly, wobbling over the man-made bridges as the waves still rocked the ships up and down, making the walkways move with them.
Some of his men occasionally looked back at the troops and past them, to the men leaned up against the rails on the other side, trying to put as much distance between them and this ship as they could.
Not only had they refused to go aboard, they remained fearful that this was an omen of sorts. An evil dirge brought forth from Hell’s depths, running on a crew of unseen demons, tricking sailors aboard to be taken into slavery for an eternity of damnation on the high seas.
McTaggart disagreed, as he theorized, it could be the lost family of Alexander Sawney Bean, set sail on the dark waters, hunting new prey to this day, seeking supplies in the form of unwary sailors.
Beane was believed to have been the legendary head of a forty eight member clan of incestuous and cannibalistic family members, who over twenty five years, off the Ayrshire and Galloway coast, killed and ate what was rumoured to be thousands of Scotsman.
To that Rios replied, “If I find myself someone’s dinner, I hope they choke on my bones and my alcohol laced liver spoils the stew.”
McTaggart was not sedated by that.
Rios would never force a man to do something he feared, but he made them all very aware, of those of the crew who refused to join the expedition or help move any of the discovered bounty from the mystery ship, they also forfeited their share of the salvage.
Some men still chose their souls over the riches.
Rios turned to the first man behind him, William Kale.
British tried and true, thick body, heavy stocky frame, short brown hair and having a small nervous cheek flutter when concerned. Right now, it was twitching a lot. He was an honest hardworking man, quick to take the lead in battles and charges, but devoted to the safety and protection of his Captain.
Rios nodded to Kale. “No staying hampered at my side. The fun in finding a ship such as this is the search.”
Kale gave a skeptical frown. He replied back, knowing he was comfortable with his Captain. And with Rios, a man could speak his mind and not be reprimanded for it, presuming he spoke with respect and civility. “Sir. My primary job is protecting you. And if I have to protect you from yourself, I will.”
Rios slapped Kale on the back and guffawed. “Son. I don’t envy your job because I know I would hate to be trying to keep the reins on me.”
Once Rios was on the deck of the ship, his boots sloshed and squished remnants of scattered seaweed that had washed aboard in the night. Chunks of wood floated effortless by his feet, dark coloured and saturated, preventing any means to ascertain the source. Pieces of sail lay draped over a few dead fish whose last breaths of ocean ended with the sudden slap of the deck. Rivulets of rope were snaked around wooden pilasters and pilings, ripped and shorn at edges, not unlike the rope once holding the anchor, chopped and chewed as though eaten, not cut.
Again, Rios thought. ‘What the Hell happened on this ship?’
His men fanned out, each planning to search the ship in teams of two. One team was designated to find the stores, one team to search the hold, one to find the crew quarters, one to check the treasure stations and the last, to search for anything that may explain this mysterious ship.
The Captain and the Doctor stayed as a team as they found their way to the Captain’s quarters.
Once found, it seemed to be in perfect order, with the exception of the rough rocking of the seas the night prior.
There was a large wooden desk at the rear, adjacent a huge made bed. On the desk were maps and books, with an equal number scattered on the floor. Clothes were in piles and a dinner tray, laden with half-eaten food, lay in a mess near a tobacco can for late night chewing. The windows were clean, the room was undamaged and everything seemed lonely, waiting for her Captain to return.
Rios picked up the Captain’s Log, which lay tightly closed on a dresser, wedged between it and a fallen rack.
From the cover, he could read, ‘Ship’s Manifest.’
Rios opened its leather bound seal and pulled to the last pages where entries could be found. He could give it a more thorough reading later. He perused many of the paragraphs, his eyes squinting a few times at the previous Captain’s poor penmanship.
After several minutes, Rios shouted to the doctor, who stood patiently back and by the door providing the proper respect for this room.
Only a Captain can search another Captain’s quarters. It was understood.
LaFleur kept his hands clasped behind his back, staying quiet and reserved.
Rios spoke. “The ship is called the Leviathan.”
“American?” the doctor replied.
“So it would seem.”
“And it’s complement?” A doctor was always concerned with the lives a ship carried, not the beams or floors that housed them.
Rios ran his finger down a long list of names, each individually numbered, likely by the ship owner’s accountant. Some were crossed off, likely no shows, drunks who slept in too late on departure day or men for who the sea withdrew her invitation.
Others were likely those who simply did not survive the full trip.
And like any accounting ledger, you don’t pay those who don’t stay, whatever the reason.
Rios finished his counting. “I would say four hundred. Maybe a few more or less. But it seems pretty much up to date.”
“With the exception the ship seems to be missing about four hundred, maybe a few more or a few less.” LaFleur casually mentioned, speaking sarcastically. He then asked, “Anything in the log as to what happened?”
Rios continued to read on. “They were on a mission of exploration. Travelling along the Southern coasts. From what I read, they pulled into a jungle cove or bay for respite. Somewhere very south as the Captain refers to finding frost on his outer glass one morning.”
“South exploring you say.” LaFleur was searching the room with his eyes. “Not an uncommon practice. There are a lot of unknown areas in the South.” He paused. “Did they find anything?” LaFleur was leading the questions on, hoping to whittle down for more clues to help solve this riddle.
Rios continued to read. “It appears they found an island of sorts.”
LaFleur tilted his head curiously. “Of sorts? So the coast they pulled into was an island?”
Rios shook his head. “No. From what I read here, they were on a large land mass. But what he refers to is an island within an island.”
“Like a moat?” LaFleur was thinking of old British castles surrounded by a large man made ditches, dug very deep, armed with spikes and talons, and filled with water to hide the dangers beneath. The monarchy would reside inside, behind its precious stone walls like on its own little island nation.
Rios was not sharing the thought. He replied. “It doesn’t say. But the Captain calls it the ’Island of Forever Night.’”
LaFleur’s interests were peaked more. “Forever Night? Like the soil was all black? Or that its days were shorter and its nights longer? I’ve heard the more South you go, you will find lands such as this with nights and days that run on for months.”
Rios was still reading, not following this flight of fancy. “It still doesn’t say. In fact, it’s like….”
LaFleur stood ready. He waited, but finally asked again, his curiosity getting the better of his patience. “And?”
Rios clucked his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Pages are missing.”
“Come again?” LaFleur was surprised. “Someone actually tore pages from the official log?”
Rios bristled. Entry into the Captains quarters alone was a travesty. But removing pages from the private memoirs of her ship’s Captain was beyond redemption. Besides being a breach of maritime protocol, the log was the official record of a ship’s course, its actions and history, as kept by the vessel’s master himself. One never touched its pages.
Rios searched the floor with his eyes, now seeing what he had missed before.
LaFleur could see Rios’ impatience as his head went back and forth. “Pray tell. What else are we missing?”
Rios gestured to the floor. “The sea charts, maps and guides of their passage.”
“And you can tell this how?” LaFleur was genuinely curious.
Rios knelt done, closing the log and dropping it into a satchel he carried with him from his ship. He planned to read it more thoroughly once he was back in his own quarters. “Because these maps are of the Northern seas. I know them well. But the log specifically refers to the South.” Rios pushed them all aside, sorting and piling them, not finding any others. “Whoever stole the last pages of the Captain’s log seems to have taken all the maps of their route.”
LaFleur shrugged. “I guess wherever this island is, someone never wants it to be found.”
In the corridors, two teams had checked in thus far with Rios.
The supply stores were nearly fully stocked with food. There were some perishable items that seemed to have spoiled, likely over the past month, but most of the dried goods, salted products and bottled items were still salvageable.
Rios ordered them to be brought to the ship.
The second team brought even stranger news. The treasury was fully loaded. Gold and money for the crew’s wages was in lockboxes, untouched and unmoved. Silver bars stamped for bank delivery in London were stored, stacked and ready for shipment. The remaining valuables, small baubles and items of special care were set aside to be taken back to America. Nothing appears to have been stolen or pillaged. Piracy was obviously not the reason for this empty ship.
But the treasury team did report one very specific area of which everything was missing. Besides the entire crew not being on board, the armoury was completely empty. All they found were a few bayonets, a couple of long rifles and a selection of old and dull swords. No muskets, munitions or powder.
Wherever the crew was, they went fully armed and ready for a fight.
Rios and LaFleur continued forward in their inspection.
Rios, unconsciously stroking the thick folds of his beard, up and down, ever so carefully, with his right hand.
Back on deck, the third team, two former British soldiers, now privateers and regular citizens, called to the Captain to attend to them. They appeared to be circling something on the deck above and to be genuinely perplexed.
‘Join the club.’ Rios thought to himself as he approached.
The two men walked straight and ridged, like they were still in the Corps, as any army man will tell you, military stayed in the blood. It never died within you.
Rios and LaFleur climbed the wooden stairs while tightly gripping the handrails. Even though the treads were drier than the lower floors by virtue of the height, the wood was still sweating and had warped unnaturally. Once they reached the upper helm, they moved towards the two officers.
The two men stood to each side and allowed for Rios and LaFleur to look.
And look Rios did. He knelt down, staring in confusion.
The area in front of the ship’s wheel, which itself was chipped and hacked in thick chunks, was inundated with dozens, if not hundreds of holes thrust into the deck, dug deep in some areas, shallow in others, as though someone thought gold could be found under the floorboards and a team of miners took to finding it.
LaFleur too was down on his knees, running his fingers over what appeared to be masses of stained wood pieces and ravaged paneling. After his inspection, he had another theory for his Captain. He looked right into Rios’ eyes and stated quite confidently. “Something died here Captain.”
Rios stared at the damage and tried to understand.
LaFleur had drawn a dagger from his belt, a long slender blade with a pointed end which he saved for incisions and digit amputations. It had a pearl handle and a curved shaft. Within seconds, he was digging into the wood and pulling out chips of sharpened stone and edged rocks.
“What did this?” Rios asked staring curiously at the tiny chips.
LaFleur held it up in the sunlight. “It appears to be pieces of a spear tip. From what I can see, numerous spear tips.”
“Savages?” Rios asked, knowing many of the Southern unexplored areas were rumoured to be besieged by men of the wild, whose animalistic rages and lack of civilization left them as nothing more than two legged beasts in need of killing.
“One would have to assume.” LaFleur looked around. “But they do not seem to have attacked anywhere else. This is the only point on this ship I see massacred in this way. Unless the men discover more.”
Rios reviewed the location of the damage and its proximity to the wheel housing. “Maybe they dragged the Captain out here, to stab him into oblivion, to frighten the crew.”
LaFleur looked skeptical. “Savages are not known for using such tactics. They treat all prisoners as equals. Rank means nothing to them. So killing one man, leader or not, to tame the others into submission would be a foolhardy act. Plus, consider this, were savages to kill you in such a way, your men would not be cowed into defeat. In fact, it would be like lighting a powder keg.”
Rios had to agree. Hardened sailors were not so easily weakened by sights of blood and gore.
The doctor dug out another spear tip, one wedged deep into the wood. He raised it up, turning it over and stared at it with fascination.
Rios could see his doctor’s interest. “What is it that has you so impressed?”
“I’m not impressed per say. I’m more confused.” LaFleur held it up for Rios to examine.
Rios could see the underside of the tip was soaked in a small amount of a blue liquid, still moist, lined with slivers of green and clear jelly. None of it having been scrubbed away by the storm as the stone points were well protected by how deeply embedded they were in the ship.
LaFleur was intrigued. “Whatever was killed here, as brutally as it was done, it seems to have bled blue.”
One of the British soldiers looked aghast. “Royalty?”
Rios quickly interrupted in a commanding tone, to squash and prevent such a rumour from gallivanting through his ship. The last thing he wanted was tales racing through the ship and later the shipyards back in England of an American ship losing a Royal on board. He snapped with some firmness in his voice. “First, Royalty rarely, if ever, travel on American ships. Second, never on exploration missions. And third, and most importantly, I trained two of the princes in fencing back in England some years ago. Sometimes, they could go at one another quite roughly and be assured, though many think the Royal family has blue blood, I assure you, it’s a red as my own.”
The solider looked visibly relieved.
The other soldier chimed in, listening in from the left of Rios. “Could it be war paint?” Pointing to the stains. “I saw a tribe in the Southern coast of Africa where they covered themselves with blue paint to scare invaders.”
LaFleur looked up to the soldier. “I’ve heard the same thing. But I also must disagree. Whatever got pummeled here was definitively with spears. And the one thing I know about Americans, very few of them find spears more effective than a good pistol or a broadsword.”
Both soldiers had to admit, it was more logical.
Why hack away at your enemy with spears when your guns could kill quicker.
Rios was even more curious.
This mystery was getting stranger and stranger.
As the two soldiers and the doctor continued to maul away at the deck to pull out more evidence, Rios saw something at the corner of his eye.
He casually rose and moved to the stern of the ship, using slow and steady strides, to hide any excitement at a new discovery. He took deep breaths, sucking in with some enthusiasm, as he put both hands on the rear rail. He looked out at the now quiet ocean as he listened to his doctor and the men argue theories and ideas.
Using his body to shield what he had spotted, he quickly gripped a strange black curved object rammed hard into the wood of the rail. He gripped it with his right hand, and twisted with some force.
It held firm.
Rios slipped his right boot between the railings, turning it to lock between the rounded cores, giving himself some leverage. Using his full body weight, he pushed it to the left then drew hard to the right. After several back and forth motions, the object finally pulled free.
Rios never turned to give proof of his discovery. He waited and then looked it over. It fit smoothly into the palm of his hand.
It was a rounded object, four inches in length, curved at the centre, wide at the base and pointed at the tip. It was as black as nightshade from outside to core. It had an arc shape to it, not unlike a lion’s nail, but he was sure, no lion left this behind unless it grew to fifty feet long. It had two thin and cylindrical hollow centres that ran from tip to tail. And the wide end looked like it had been ripped off something, like a paw or some large finger. It seemed to be a claw of some sort.
Rios kept it keenly hidden knowing full well if any of his superstitious men saw this, they would assume sea creatures, water dragons or the like had left it behind. And he knew he would have lifeboats over the side and men abandoning both this ship and his own for coming aboard and making contact with it.
Most sailors believed in such things as sea monsters, from Kraken to giant sea snakes, or from gigantic forty foot squids to ship length sharks, all with mighty jaws that would maw down the bows of its prey, dining on the soft meaty men inside.
But as Rios was a more pragmatic man, in his years at sea, he never once found hard proof of such things existing.
But he did think to himself as he looked down at the hole made. And where are your other four claws my monstrous friend? Why only one in this here ship? What manner of creature has only one appendage for a hand?
Rios spun the object around and accidently stabbed his index finger with the tip. It cut deep. A thin tear ran down from tip to base of his fingertip.
The object was extremely sharp. That and the cut burned. A remnant of yellow puss on the claw’s tip trickled down and moistened his finger. There was a numbing sensation that overtook his entire hand.
‘Poison?’ Rios thought. ’Had the savages actually found the monster that this nail originated from, took it after a kill, attached it to a handheld weapon, soaked it in poison, and used it on its enemies? It was sharp enough. Damn savages.’
He hoped his life did not end this way.
Blood trickled down his hand in thick rivulets filling his fist. Smooth and warm, yet thin, like it could not solidify or scab.
Rios rubbed his fingers together, wiping the yellow fluid away, pocketing the object into his vest with his other hand. He turned to LaFleur for assistance. “Doctor?”
LaFleur ceased all he was doing to attend to the Captain. He spotted the blood right away and wiped it clean with a cloth he carried at his side in a waterproof container for easy access. He sprayed it with alcohol. As he wiped away the blood, LaFleur turned the hand over and back again.
He did it again.
Rios gave him a quizzical look. “What’s wrong?”
LaFleur was examining the Captain’s hands as he turned it over and over. “Where is the blood from?”
Rios was a tad annoyed his own ship’s doctor, a man who was capable of fixing ripped tendons, sealing bullet wounds and stitching up sword lacerations with ease, could not see a simple prick on a fingertip.
Rios turned his hand up and pointed with the damaged index finger. He froze and stared mystified at his tip. Blood was still there, traces of it, trickling down in smooth crimson smears, but the wound the claw had made, deep and thick, was gone.
Like it had healed instantly. That or it was never there.
But if it was never there, like the doctor asked. ’Where did the blood come from?’
Rios had no answers. He was stunned. But he tried to contain his shock. His beard did that effortlessly.
But as for the wound, Rios could offer no explanation as to this seemingly unprecedented miracle. But he also knew, in his heart, this was a secret he needed to keep close to the vest. He was unsure why, but he knew he had crossed paths with something great and right now, he was not yet interested in sharing until he was sure, he found it first.
Rios looked up at the befuddled doctor and knew, for the first time in a long time, he had to lie. “I tripped on the boards. When I did so, I bit my inner cheek and spit into my palm when I tasted blood.” Rios paused. “Sorry. All I wanted was a cloth to wipe it away.”
The doctor stared at his Captain, never knowing him to be clumsy or unsure in his steps. But what else could it be? He released the Captain’s palm, handing him a cloth, the entire time giving him an offhanded look. He threw in one more comment. “Luckily only blood came out as I saw no saliva.”
The Captain and the doctor exchanged looks.
Rios knew that LaFleur suspected he was holding something back. But he was too good a friend to press.
And LaFleur knew, sometimes, Captains kept secrets. And usually for good reasons. Being master of a sea going vessel, filled with numerous personalities, people from different walks of life, likes and dislikes, happy and unhappy, differing cultures and mannerisms, confidentiality was a commodity that Captains kept in abundance and used with little disregard.
Nothing else was said.
Nothing else would be offered.
Rios and LaFleur left the upper deck in search of the remaining two teams.
Rios and LaFleur found team four in the crew quarters.
Two Scotsmen, short and stout, were guarding the portal into the sleeping areas.
The men advised and confirmed, they had searched the room from top to bottom and found nothing outside the norm. They reported there were numerous rooms, lots of shelves, bunks made and unmade, trunks for clothes at the ends, most fully stocked, laundry put aside for cleaning, blankets thrown asunder, but more from lazy crew than buccaneers routing for treasure. But beyond that, what they expected.
A well-used ship, but yet, not a single crew member, nor proof of a crewmember, had lived here recently.
Abandoned, without an explanation.
As Rios purveyed the area, one of the men suggested. “Maybe they left the ship as a result of the Plague?”
LaFleur quickly dismissed that notion. “No plague, no matter how deadly, how fast, could ever kill one hundred percent of the crew.”
“I have to agree with the doctor.” Rios did not feel better. He was sure LaFleur was placating the men with science, a language few seaman understood well. But no matter how he explained it, things did not add up.
Science aside, Rios knew, over four hundred men were missing. He did not want his men frightened by the prospect of sickness or death.
Rios shrugged and turned to the sailor who suggested ’Plague’. “That and I can assure you, plague is extremely doubtful. Had the ship been infected, before they abandoned, would they not have put the disease ridden corpses on board first?”
The man agreed. Why put your ship adrift due to disease and keep the plague ridden corpses with you.
Rios knew, if such a dire emergency had befallen them, the Captain would have ordered the ship be set ablaze before setting her adrift. Rios had never heard of any Captain putting a ship to sea, plagued by death, to infect any poor vessel that crossed her path.
Rios considered that plus it still appeared to be a fairly fine ship. Older of course, but steady and true. So it’s destruction by fire would seem a grand waste when all that needed be done was toss the bodies over the side.
Not that any sailor would do that to one of their mates, but again, depending on the emergency, any action was possible.
Before any other questions could be asked, a gunshot resonated down the empty halls, echoing long and sharp due to the lack of human bodies within them.
Rios drew his pistol and ran toward the sound.
Within moments, Rios entered the galley, LaFleur to his rear, dagger at ready, but wary, as the doctor repaired enough bullet wounds not to be favoured to inflict one.
They found the last team of two men, lantern on the tabletop, standing at two corners of the galley, a full kitchen with pots, pans, knives and other culinary instruments scattered about. They were standing to both sides preventing access to the corner of the room.
Rios demanded. “Who fired their weapon?”
The first man on the left, a tall and hairy fellow with sad eyes, brown hair and lots of exposed muscles. “I did sir. He came out at me from the cabinet.” Gesturing to a naked man on the floor. “I think he was sleeping in there.”
Rios looked to the floor.
On it was a naked man, as bare as the day he was born, shivering like he lived in the artic winters of the north where no ships fared to tread. His skin was tanned, but only slightly as it appeared he had been out of the sun for some time. He was definitely a Caucasian man, Spanish from his high cheekbones and dark eyes, which seemed to be laced with dozens of deep red veins of bloodshot. The man looked completely healthy, with the exception of the fact, he seemed to be out of his mind.
As Rios reached toward him, the man screamed in a way that would send souls running. Both men to the side of the Captain had their swords drawn, ready to swing.
Rios held his hand high to prevent the assault. This man was the only witness to what happened here, and he had no desire to see him killed so casually for having done nothing more than defend himself.
The second crewman ripped a portion of his sleeve and shoved it in the naked man’s mouth, to quiet the screams.
This neither calmed nor relaxed the man. He curled himself into a fetal position, still shivering, crying uncontrollably. His deep moans now dulled by the impediment in his mouth.
Rios looked inside the cabinet.
There was a pile of soiled blankets, dried food and feces. He definitely seemed to have been living here.
Turning back to his crewman who fired the shot, Rios asked. “You said you fired a shot.” He pointed to the man. “Did you miss?” Disturbed one of his men could not hit a target so close.
The crewman appeared perplexed. “I honestly thought I hit him. But when I put the lantern to him, he has not a scratch on him. Some blood on his side, so maybe I nicked him. But the odd thing is…” The crewman pointed to the wall. “If I had missed, why can I not find my bullet-hole?”
Rios looked to his index finger and back at the man. ‘Even more curious.’
LaFleur saw what Rios had done, but again, offered no comment.
The second man, a heavy brute with a flat nose, dark eyes, and speaking with a thick accent, handed the Captain some shreds of heavy bond paper. “He was eating these, Sir.”
Rios took it from his man and stared at the moist and ink smeared torn pages.
LaFleur quickly pointed out. “I guess we know what happened to the last few pages of the Captain’s Log. And the maps.”
Rios looked down at the fear stricken man, thinking to himself, not wanting to speak it aloud, as brave as the men were, such suppositions would still chill these seaman to the core. “What place good sir was so horrible you had to destroy all means of finding it?’
Rios turned to his two crewmen. “Take him to the Serenade. But try not to hurt him. If you must, put him in chains, but before that, get the man some clothes.”
The crewmen nodded.
The larger of the two asked. “What if he’s responsible for what happened here?”
At this, LaFleur interjected. “I highly doubt one man could kill and devour a crew of over four hundred. That and we have not found a single blood stain, bone or body on board.” He looked down to the shivering form. “No. This man is not our monster. But he likely saw who or what it was. And as far as I am concerned, any witness to something which has cost the lives of four hundred men and left this ship adrift at sea is someone worth keeping.” LaFleur looked downtrodden at the man. “Sadly, it also appears, whatever it was he saw may have destroyed his mind in every way imaginable.”
Rios nodded agreement.
LaFleur looked to the man and offered one more thing. “The real question is, will our sole survivor ever be well enough to tell his tale?” The doctor stared down into the man’s vacant eyes. Dark pools in which many thoughts and ideas likely were long drowned and lost. “In my estimate, likely never.”
Rios had one final thought. ‘Let’s hope not Doctor... As I think he has a fantastic tale to tell.’
Once Rios had returned to the Serenade, while a team of men were now going back and forth with supplies and inventory from the Leviathan, some men still refusing to venture across, he had made a decision.
Regardless of what happened to its crew, he had discovered a perfectly good ship on the open waters, nearly fully stocked with supplies and treasure.
Since the survivor could nary lay claim to his own mental facilities, let alone the vessel, Rios did so.
This ship, its stores and inventory were now the property of the Serenade, in the name of his Queen.
Rios moved to the helm of his ship and bellowed aloud. “Batten down the hatches and rope her firm. We’re taking our bounty back to England.”
Some men cheered, some shook their heads.
Rios thought. ‘Maybe there, I’ll have a long discussion with our sole survivor.’
Staring down at his finger again, Rios knew he had to. If only to determine and solve the mystery of what happened to the Leviathan and her crew. He felt compelled in the deep recesses of his soul to discover the answer. As he was sure, whatever it was, wherever it led, it was well worth it.