It was a particularly hot day, even for August. The swift and sweaty movement of the crew was in full force. The men knew they were only several days from Port Royal. More importantly, they were only several days from lakes of rum, flocks of whores, and enough gambling to make a man ill. There seemed to be only one man not performing his assigned duties that day. He stood with purpose just outside the corridor leading down to the ship’s lower level and gave the captain a mutinous stare.
“Riley,” the captain said. “Something you need?”
“How’s your little friend down there?”
Perplexed by Riley’s mild hostility, Captain James entertained the unusual question. “He’s good. Good as he can be, I suppose.”
“Yeah? He like his olives?”
“Yeah. I guess he did. But after a week or two without food, even a leather boot can taste like fresh honeycomb. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that, he’s been with us a long time now, and me—and some of the other guys—are just wondering why…sir. You’re not selling him. You’re not putting him to work. You don’t seem to have any intention of killing him. Right now, he’s just another mouth to feed.”
“I see,” the captain said calmly. “And you said some of the other guys feel the same way?”
“Well, I’d be lying to myself and all of you if I said you didn’t have a point.”
Riley squinted curiously as Captain James scratched his head.
“Right now we’re about three days from Port Royal,” the captain said. “When we get there, we’ll take him out of his cage and have him dig a grave. And we’ll nip this in the bud before it becomes a real problem. Sound good?”
“Yes, sir,” Riley said, happy to secure the captain’s approval.
A few days later, Otis lay in his cage reflecting, although distracted by his growling belly. The heavy boots of several pirates stomped down the stairs, followed by the whoosh of a black cloak being thrown over Otis’s cage.
Moments later, as the cloak was removed, the harsh sunlight filled Otis’s skull with a throbbing headache. His eyelids were so bright that he needed both hands to cover them, and he nearly vomited from the shock of the incoming beams. When he was finally able to see, he found himself surrounded by pirates, Captain James, and a handful of rowdy onlookers enjoying the lawless backstreets of Port Royal. They were just off the beaten path of the small yet rambunctious village at what looked to be the top of a cliff.
“Take your time,” the captain said, in regard to Otis’s adjusting eyes. “I know it’s been a while since you’ve seen the sun.”
Riley nudged the pirates to his left and right. “See,” he said, under his breath. “Best friends, they are. Prolly won’t even go through with it.”
After allowing what he felt to be a sufficient amount of time, Captain James opened the cage door and tossed a shovel at Otis’s feet. “Dig.”
Disheartened, Otis picked up the shovel and wondered how many men he could kill with it before the remaining pirates swarmed him. “Where?” he asked.
“Right over there’s good. Seems like a nice view.” Captain James turned and pointed to a spot that was twenty or so feet away from the cliff’s edge.
Otis could barely pick up the shovel but mustered enough strength to dig what was sure to be his grave. He had taken his time, trying to come up with something—anything that would give him the slightest advantage to escape. He thought of diving over the cliffside but knew that it didn’t lead to water. Again, he toyed with the notion of using the shovel to fend off his would-be attackers, but it didn’t play out in his head any better the second time around.
As his hole began to take its unmistakable shape, he slowed his pace, thinking and continuously coming up short. Every escape plan was sure to lead to a quick death. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. What if they bury me alive? A rush of panic washed over his chest as he paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Captain James nodded at a beefy pirate who was standing closest to the growing hole. Before Otis had realized that someone else had hopped into the hole with him, the man’s hulky fist flew into Otis’s cheek, rendering him unconscious.
“Get him up outta there,” the captain said, scanning the crowd. “Riley. Do you have a knife?”
“Sure do,” Riley answered, giddy and eager to please.
“Is it sharp? Really, really sharp?”
“Yes, sir, Captain. Sharpened it this morning.”
“Good,” Captain James said with a devious grin. “I sharpened mine this morning too. Now you and I are going to get into that hole, and one of these knives is going to kill one of us. And whoever lives will get to be captain of the Jolly Roger. Whoever dies won’t waste the other’s time by needing to be dragged to a grave site.”
“Captain, I’m sorry. I never meant for you to—”
“Save it, Riley,” the captain said, lowering his lanky legs into the hole. “Now get in here. Let’s see how sharp that knife is.”
With nerves of cotton, Riley stepped over to the opposite side of the hole and lowered himself inside. His reluctant hand reached for the knife on his belt and began to tremble as he raised it toward his captain.
“Ready?” the captain asked.
“Captain, we don’t have to. We can discuss this.”
In one swift motion, Captain James reached for his dagger and tossed it at Riley, impaling him just above the heart.
Riley immediately fell to his back and howled out in pain. He could taste the dust that would soon fill his nose and mouth and began to cry. “Please, Captain.”
Captain James wrapped both hands around the dagger handle stuck to Riley’s chest. Before the captain could drive it farther in and pierce Riley’s pounding heart, the neighing of a nearby horse made him pause.
“Johnny,” he said. “Go get me that horse.”
“I don’t know whose horse that is, Captain.”
The captain rolled Riley on his side, tied his hands behind his back with a small length of twine, and threw him up out of the grave. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Johnny replied, hurrying away.
Captain James emerged from the grave, looked around at his crew, and rested his shiny boot on a whimpering Riley.
Johnny quickly returned with the first horse he could snag. The captain grabbed the back of Riley’s neck and firmly tied wrists and threw him over the horse like a saddlebag. The captain went back into the grave to retrieve the knife Riley had dropped. “It really is sharp,” he said, rubbing the blade and guiding the horse toward the cliff’s edge. “Any last words, Riley?”
Captain James drove the knife into the horse’s hind leg. It screamed before leaping off the cliff, causing Riley to scream as well.
Captain James turned to face his silent crew. “You see that guy over there?” he asked, pointing to an unconscious Otis. “That is my prisoner. Just like the Jolly Roger is my ship, and you are my crew. Riley seemed to have forgotten that when it comes to handling business on the ship, it’s my goddamn business,” he exclaimed, driving both thumbs into his chest.
“And Riley, may he rest in peace”—the captain struggled to hold back a chuckle—“told me that he wasn’t alone in his dissatisfaction. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t want to point any fingers because he didn’t name a single name. But I’m thinking we need a fresh start. From this point forward, you can either be loyal and do your job and let me do mine—and trust that I know what I’m doing and that every decision I make is for the good of the ship—or you can join me down there in that hole with your knife. You just better hope it’s faster and sharper than Riley’s. No one?” he asked, scanning the crowd. “OK, then. Get Nobe back in his cage, and put him where he belongs. Let’s put all this mess behind us. And let’s enjoy all the debauchery that Port Royal has to offer,” he concluded to a chorus of cheers.
When Otis awoke and found himself back in his cage and stowed in the bottom of the ship, his emotion boiled over into the physical realm. He balled up both fists and began to pound the lock of his cage until every one of his knuckles had split open and was leaking blood.
“Why couldn’t you have just killed me?” he asked, sobbing.
“You can pound all you like,” the captain said, emerging from a dark corner. “But you’ll never get out like that.”
“What the hell do I gotta do to get outta here?”
“Tell me something,” the captain said, strolling into the light. “What keeps you going? How is it that I haven’t broken you yet? It’s never taken this long. Hell, one time, I had this little savage girl on board. Tiger Lily. I bought her over in the Americas—was told I got a great deal and she was a good worker. Turns out neither of those things were true. So we decided to lock her up until we could figure out what to do with her. She got loose from her cage the first day we had her in it. Stabbed two guys and jumped overboard. Drowned. She preferred death over one more day alive in this very cage. But not you. You refuse to die. You refuse to kill yourself. You’ve spent over ten times as many days in this cage than anyone else before you. Why is that?”
Otis pondered for a moment. “I guess I’m willing to sit in a cage forever, as long as I can hope for one more second of freedom.”
“Seriously?” the captain asked, unimpressed. “That block of cheese is all you got?”
Otis shrugged his shoulders.
“Tell me something, Nobe. Do you think you could ever find it in your heart to call me Captain?”
“I already do.”
“No. I mean for real. Like you mean it.”
Otis let the words hang in the musty air.
“Do you think you could be a loyal member of this crew?” the captain asked. “You’d have freedom in the sense that you wouldn’t have to sit and rot in this cage. But I would expect you to do what I say, when I say, as long as I see fit. Do you think we could make that work?”
Otis thought long and hard. He thought back to the times in which he and Curly hadn’t eaten in days and were forced to watch a team of rats and flies devour a half-eaten steak dinner that was just out of reach. He remembered the cold months in which there were consecutive weeks without a wink of sleep until his body shut down.
“Yeah, if it means getting out of here. I’m willing to do whatever it takes, Captain.”
“It’s not going to be easy.”
“What about this so far has been easy?” Otis asked.
“That’s the spirit, Nobe.” Captain James let out a cackle and stomped up the stairs.
Otis didn’t see him again for another month.
In a remote part of the ocean, the magnificent Jolly Roger basked in the sun’s rays as the crew took some leisure time to indulge in the Caribbean climate. Through the delicate waters that cradled the ship, Captain James noticed the approaching remnants of some wreckage fifteen to twenty feet down.
“I think this is it,” he said. “Drop anchor, boys.”
Despite Otis’s strength being too depleted to fight even one pirate, the captain sent down four to escort him up to the deck.
“Nobe. Today is a big day for you.”
Otis watched as ten or so pirates carried a massive glass plate and used a series of ropes and pulleys to lower it flat onto the water. Once on the surface, it created a viewing window down to the eerie shipwreck resting on the ocean floor.
“Down there, in one of the rooms, there are six or seven chests filled to the brim with gold doubloons. I need you to go down and find them. And when you do, you’ll have to net them so we can drag them up here.”
“How do you expect me to do that?” Otis asked. “I’m a good swimmer, but I can’t hold my breath that long.”
“You won’t have to.” Captain James stood up and unveiled a large coil of leather tubing. “You won’t be able to see or hear anything. But you’ll be able to breathe just fine. Just put one end of this in your mouth, grab a cannonball, and hop on in. We’ll keep you tethered to the top, and make sure you have plenty of slack…and fresh air.”