It seemed like a couple of hours, but Diego returned and opened up the door. He motioned with the handgun for us to leave with him. The corridor was dimly lit and through portholes on different walls, you could see that it was night.
He stopped at the end of the corridor and said, “The diamond. Let’s have it.”
“No,” I replied. “Not until we’re safe in the boat.”
It looked like Diego was going to argue but then thought better of it. He sighed and nodded, and we were moving again.
We ducked into the galley and unfortunately there were about a half-dozen sailors sitting and eating. They saw who we were and all stood at once. It was clear they weren’t going to let us through.
As I reached into my pocket to pull out another cubic, Jimmy rushed by me towards the biggest swabbie of the bunch and gave him a haymaker. The sailor went down, out cold, and the others pounced on Jimmy. I pulled one of them off him and received a punch in the face for my effort. I fought back and we traded punches. Finally, I was able to drop the guy once and for all. He didn’t get up.
As I looked up to see who else I could help with, a brute hit the wall next to me, bouncing off and onto the floor. He didn’t get up. Looking around, I saw that all the other Venezuelans were down on the floor. Jimmy was hunched over one of them, but stood back up when he must have realized the guy was not going to fight back. He was breathing hard but had an odd smile on his face as he rubbed his right hand with his left. “It’s been a while since I had this much fun.”
I had seen him singlehandedly handle a gang of bad guys a few times, and I’ve never seen him lose a fight, so I wasn’t really surprised at this outcome. I half expected to hear an alarm or something, but it was quiet except for the engine noise. I didn’t see Diego anywhere. What I did see was a galley floor filled with overturned and broken benches, tables and coffeemakers, along with a few unconscious Venezuelan sailors.
Diego crawled out from one of the overturned tables. “We better hurry …”
We followed him out of the galley and into another corridor, finally making it to the boat. It was about twenty feet long, made of wood, hanging from a boom, its bow bouncing in the waves. The ship was still moving at about ten knots.
“How are we supposed to get into that?” Jimmy asked, pointing at the precarious craft.
“Easy,” Diego answered. “Climb out on the boom and drop in.”
I was skeptical. “Where’s the stuff we asked for?”
“Where’s the diamond?”
I reached in and pulled it out. “Right here, but we need to be on that boat and in the water before you can have it.”
“Be my guest …” He pointed to the bouncing boat.
We stared at the boat. “So, where’s the stuff?”
“In the boat.”
Jimmy started up the rail toward the boom. “Let’s get this over with.” He hopped into the boat and waved me over.
I hesitated, then willed myself up onto the rail. Once in the craft, I tried to find the food and water despite the bouncing. I stood up and rode the waves like on a surf board, and saw a canvas bag.
“I put in 4 canteens of water,” Diego shouted. “And a few empanadas for your trip. How about my diamond?”
I pulled out and threw him the stone. He looked at it, pocketed it and pulled out a knife. In an instant the rope holding the boat to the boom was cut and the stern of the dinghy slammed onto the water, knocking both of us down on the hull. We were in the small boat and free of the ship.
I looked over the rail of the boat and was able to see the Venezuelan ship shrinking in the dark of night, its lights fading. We were slowing to a crawl and it was powering away.
I laid back down and noticed the stars brilliantly blanketing the night sky. It reminded me of the time I went camping in the Rockies. That was the first time I ever saw the Milky Way. It never got old.
“That was some ride,” Jimmy said. “What now?”
“We call for help. Do you have the sat phone?”
“No, I didn’t see it.” We both felt around and I looked in the bag of goodies. No phone.
“Dammit. Dammit.” I tried to think of something, but nothing came to mind. We both laid back down and watched the sky, and I fell asleep.
The daylight woke me gradually, not at all like my alarm clock. There was no swaying or waves lapping on the hull. I sat up and found that Jimmy was already awake. The ocean was perfectly calm and there was a damp coolness in the air. “Mornin’.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “It’s morning.”
“Been up long?”
“A while. Pretty sunrise.”
I reached out and he handed me a canteen. I took a long drink. “You know, Erin’s safe.”
“I don’t see a motor.”
“Oars.” He pointed at a set tied up under the rail on the left side. “I figured we’d take turns, once we decided where to row.”
“The way I see it, we row west, away from the morning sun, and north. We’re bound to be picked up by a merchant ship or fishing boat.”
“Hopefully not one filled with pirates.”
“Okay, I owe you that. Go ahead and get it off your chest.”
“I told you so.”
“Yes, you did.”
I untied the oars and placed the oarlocks in their holes, one on each side of the boat. Jimmy moved forward so I could sit on the single raised seat across the middle, located in the right spot for rowing. The boat was about 4 feet wide and 15 feet long, and the oars were somewhat cumbersome and heavy. But I managed to get a rhythm, pointing us away from the sun. That put the sun in my eyes as I rowed.
“You know, Erin deserves you at home,” I said, squinting to see Jimmy. “Not out risking your life every day. That’s why I retired when I did. Ellie deserved better.”
“I can’t afford to retire for a few more years.”
“What if you could?”
“I’d consider it, for sure. What did you have in mind?”
“Not sure.” I stopped to look at my watch but it wasn’t there. “Okay, we need to figure out a schedule. Can you count hands from the horizon to the sun?”
Jimmy put his palms out at arms’ length, sideways, fingers parallel to the horizon. One palm over the other he counted to three. “Three and a half.”
“Keep measuring every once in a while. When it hits five, we’ll swap.”
“That sounds right. I’ll keep my eyes open for a ship.”
After a while my back muscles complained that I was out of shape. I hadn’t thought I was. While rowing, I tried to figure out what to do. We could actually die at sea, but I was pretty confident we would be in some sort of trading zone. We would see a ship, I was sure of it. But would they be friendly?
After a bit, Jimmy laughed out loud.
“What?” I asked between strokes.
“I was just thinking about the captain when they find out half of his loot is fake.”
“Yeah, I’m glad we won’t be there.”
“Someone’s gonna be pissed.” After another moment, he asked, “Do you think we should have stayed on board? We might have been fine.”
“Believe me, I’ve thought a lot about that. I just keep thinking about how cartels and other groups are now trading and selling hostages to each other. As Americans, we might’ve ended up in the Middle East somewhere.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Last thing we want to be are hostages of al-Qa’ida or the Islamic Jihad Union.”
“We especially don’t want to be on some Islamic channel …”
“Okay, you convinced me … Better to be stranded here in the middle of the ocean ... alive …”
“We’ll get picked up; we’ll be okay.”
I quietly settled back into my steady rowing rhythm. Soon, it was Jimmy’s turn at the oars and I gladly gave them up. “When the sun is straight overhead,” I suggested, “we’ll stop and eat.”
“Good idea,” Jimmy said, and he started his own cadence, which was stronger than mine. The boat was actually making a small wake.
By the third day at sea, we were both conserving our strength, rowing only for about an hour at a time and resting for a couple hours between turns. We didn’t exert ourselves at all after dark. We had run out of empanadas early on the second day and water was gone by that night.
My muscles stopped hurting, or I was numb to the pain, as long as I kept the stroke slow and easy. When I stopped my shift, I laid down and fell asleep.
“You probably should let Jimmy take a couple more shifts than you.” It was Ellie, sitting across from me on the floor of the dinghy. She was dressed in her jogging outfit, light gray top and pants, both with bright pink seams, and her white Nike running shoes. “He wants to, you know, and he’s younger and stronger than you.”
“I know, babe, but it’s not fair.”
“You have to do what will keep you alive, not what’s fair. He knows that.”
“Okay, I’ll let him have the oars a few extra shifts.”
“He will appreciate it, trust me.”
“How’d you get to be so smart?”
“I guess death becomes me …” She smiled. “You guys need some water.”
“A steak dinner wouldn’t be so bad, either.”
“Water is coming. So is a fishing boat.”
“Yes, dear. Don’t give up hope.”
I was awakened by a wonderful rain. It was hard and steady, without a wisp of breeze. I looked over to where Ellie had been sitting and felt sad. I wished she wasn’t gone. Jimmy stopped rowing and looked straight up, opening his mouth to take in a good mouthful of water. I did the same.
I could feel my strength returning almost immediately and wondered if it actually was or if it was psychological. “Ellie said water was coming and here it is.”
“Is she still visiting you in your dreams?”
“Yeah. I know it’s probably my subconscious doing that, but I don’t care. She seems real to me, at least for a few minutes.”
“I’m glad for you, buddy. I really am. What else did she say?”
“That a boat will be coming to pick us up.”
“Well, I sure hope that’s true.”
We both looked at the horizon, but no silhouettes of any kind could be seen. I noticed that the boat was accumulating water on the floor. I wondered how much we could take on before it would become dangerous.
I cupped both my palms together and dipped them in the growing puddle. I guided them to my mouth and tried taking a big drink, only half succeeding. Jimmy followed suit.
The water level grew higher and the boat began sinking lower in the sea. I started bailing water out of the boat with my hands.
“Good idea, Patty-boy,” Jimmy said, and he joined me until about a third of the water was out, but the rain continued to pour in.
I looked out at the rainstorm and noticed an area in the distance devoid of rain, but it looked reachable. I pointed to it and Jimmy picked up the oars and began rowing like crazy. In about 15 minutes the rain stopped. I wasn’t sure if we reached the dry spot of if the dry spot reached us, but I was glad that we weren’t going to be swamped. That would have been ironic — us without fresh water and then being engulfed by it.
“This water,” Jimmy said, nodding his head towards it, “should last us a while.”
“Good point,” I replied. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“You know,” Jimmy continued, “I saw on the Discover Channel that healthy men can go without food for up to 8 weeks, as long as they have water to drink. Remember all the hunger strikes in the 80’s?”
“Eight weeks? I hope we don’t have to wait that long.”
“Me neither, but at least we have fresh water.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to sleep in it, but we have it.”
“Good point,” Jimmy echoed. “At least it’s warm here in the sunlight.”
Evidently reinvigorated, Jimmy was back to making a wake with his strong rowing. I let him.
Another day, another few rounds of rowing northwest. We slept through the night uncomfortably sitting in our stash of life-preserving water. We were both awakened by the sound of an engine. Jumping up excitedly, we saw a large fishing boat that was approaching. We waved our arms and a crewman on board waved back. We sat on our bench seat, relieved.
The gray-and-brown-stained fishing boat pulled up alongside us and dropped anchor. The large, faded white letters of its name, “Buscador de Peces,” overlooked our small vessel as its crew gathered above us. They threw a rope down and I started up, and they grabbed my arms and shirt as I reached their rail. Then Jimmy was helped aboard.