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“Here,” his old first mate said passing him a handful of manure. “You want to look like them? First you’d better smell like them...”
Miguel tentatively took the offered clod of putrid dirt and attempted to copy the large Englishman’s movements.
“Not like that Cap’n!” The Englishman laughed, “Into the skin! It’s not some bloody perfume... pretend it’s a hog – baste the bugger.” He smiled revealing his brown teeth, “Aye Cap’n that’s it.”
Miguel reluctantly smeared more faeces into his skin and sailor’s slops – pilfered from an unsuspecting washerwoman’s basket only minutes before. “It can’t be Capitan anymore Ormes, else they’ll know... we must be familiar, we’ve known each other long enough.”
“As you say Cap’n,” Ormes – the Englishman – grinned, “Michael it shall be. Well now you look the part, and the manure is helping. Perhaps a bit o’ hog swill would serve too?”
The Spaniard’s nose turned up as he flicked the remnants of dirt from his fingers, “Am I not degraded enough as it is?”
“Oh come mate!” Ormes laughed, “We are just getting started... I thought you said you were willing to take this all the way?”
“Of course I’m willing!” Miguel snapped, angry at his first mate’s suggestion. “Have I not proved that? Have I not done so much already?” He slapped his dirty hands against the nearest lime-washed wall, his fingers leaving a gritty semi-decomposed trail.
Ormes watched as he tensed his shoulders, heaving deep breaths, his filthy brown nails scratching at the stone. “All right mate I’m sorry...” Ormes nodded, “I was just jesting with you. Perhaps we could do with a rest... it’s been a hellish few weeks.”
Hellish? That was the understatement of the new century. Miguel closed his eyes, gritting his ivory teeth together. He had done things he’d thought not possible... he’d watched some of them die, and abandoned the others. Now their faces were starting to catch up with him. A rest Ormes said... they hadn’t stopped for months now. A rest would be nice. “No!” Miguel’s eyes snapped back to the Englishman, “No rest Ormes, and it is I that am sorry, you have brought me this far, you have not let me down. Now it is time for the next stage of our journey.”
“You are sure Cap’n?” Ormes appraised the Spaniard – this driven man, this man of vengeance. When he’d first met his officer he’d had reeked of righteous popery; now, like every other soul in Petit Goave, he reeked of piss and shit.
“Yes,” Miguel’s dark eyes flashed with determination, “it’s into the lion’s den we go.”
“All right, I believe you are ready Michael, but fortunately for me the first task is learning the lay of the land and makin’ ourselves known to the locals.”
“And how do we do that?”
“Well matey – therein lies the most difficult part of our task... we start with the tavern, drink ourselves stupid, fuck a couple of whores, and brawl riotously.” Ormes grinned, “Welcome to the Caribbean Cap’n.”
“I’ve lived around El Caribe’ all my life Ormes.”
“Aye matey – but not the pirates’ Caribbean you ain’t, an’ I have a whole lot to teach you.”
The ‘tavern’ turned out to be the old rotting hulk of a merchantman. Collapsed on its side, its decks now the bulwarks, its real bulwarks mush against the silted greasy sands beneath, and makeshift uneven planks – most likely recycled from other wrecks – lay lengthways to form some sort of footing.
Open or missing portholes above let in the only natural light, and at the moment, a deluge of tropical rain to boot. In the long forgotten steerage, blackened tun barrels formed a bar with cabins behind, used to store the smuggled off-beer, spirits and wine. A grizzled veteran of only god-knew-what stood as landlord, his half nose and stitched cheek curling his face into a permanent sneer, his potbelly sticking proudly from his stained shirt.
“What’ll it be?” he asked, reaching for two worn leather cups. From behind him, a mildewed canvas curtain twitched aside. In the dark, a woman missing several teeth peered out and offered what she thought to be a coy smile.
“Whatever you got matey...” Ormes slapped a couple of coins onto the improvised counter, “somethin’ strong.”
“Drink or whores?” the landlord said, taking the coins.
“Drink first – then we’ll see about the whores.”
The sneering face twitched as raw dark spirit was poured into the used vessels. Ormes thanked the man, veering Miguel off to an old palette box and keg hidden away in the corner, masked by the gloom of tobacco smoke and the haze of cheap oil burning in a mixed collection of lanterns.
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t keep sword and pistol,” Miguel said grimacing at the strong licker, “others are armed in here... I feel naked without my ropera.”
“Don’t be daft Cap’n,” Ormes lapsed accidentally. He nodded his head and corrected himself, “Look at ‘em closer Michael. Nothin’ more than a battered cutlass or antique firearm missing doghead an’ flint. They’d have seen us coming in our finery, we’d have not made it to the bar without being set upon.”
“I’m still not happy. What do we do now anyway?”
“Relax matey... we wait for the dandies to turn up.”
“The dandies! You know... pirates, filibusters and the like. Could be today – could be next week, but they will.”
“What?” Miguel frowned. “What do you call these people?” he waved his hands at the plethora of dirty men and women wearing sailor slops and rags, drinking themselves into a stupor.
“Who? These poor buggers?” Ormes shook his head and supped from his own leather cup, “they are the forgotten... runaway indentured men from the Colonies or plantations maybe. Mutineers p’raps... smugglers without trade, petty criminals without reprieve... log cutters and boucaniers chased off the main by your lot... men waiting to die or an opportunity to live; at least for a short time. These ain’t pirates Michael, maybe some of ‘em were once.”
Ormes paused, drank again, grinning at Miguel’s confusion. “You look confounded matey. Life on the ocean ain’t divided into king’s men on the side of God and pirates in league with Lucifer.”
“I know that,” Miguel frowned, and he knew it very well. He almost resented a mere sloop’s mate telling him about the ways of a world he knew little about, and he knew that frustration was making Ormes smile. But he needed Ormes – Ormes who knew so much of the buccaneers because once upon a time he had been one too…
The large Englishman was catholic, just like he was. It was a decade ago Ormes had been captured by the Costa Garda from the Spanish Main – elite mariners and fighters in sleek single-masted vessels manned by many oars. Like the buccaneers he had described moments ago, Sean Ormes had been illegally cutting redwoods in Spanish territory, and like his fellows, living off barbequed wild hogs.
Miguel knew some of those ruthless sea officers – he knew the Costa Garda rarely spared anyone, but with his filthy brethren, Ormes had been taken to Portobello – a place still bloodthirsty for the death of pirates and buccaneers, remembering all too well the sacking led by Henry Morgan twenty years prior. By coincidence, and a fact Ormes was not to learn until later, Miguel’s father, an aging admiral was governor at the time – clemency was granted to the catholic buccaneers in return for their impressment back upon the ocean.
Sean Ormes of Irish heritage had been lucky. The English Protestants and French Huguenots were not so fortunate. Ormes had witnessed their garrotting, the eyes bulging, their purple tongues swollen... their bowels emptying into already stained breeches and slops. If anything, it was worse than a hanging. There was no pulling of legs to ease the passing, no drop to break the neck; just the slow twist of the leather cord by the executioner, the horrendous gasping of the men he had shared months with in the jungle, and the harassed queue of condemned men looking forlornly at the fate that awaited them.
“The spirit is foul,” Miguel said with another grimace.
“What did you expect?” Ormes grinned at the other’s discomfort, “It’ll probably see us blind if we aren’t murdered first.”
“I can’t imagine hell will be much worse... and that’s where we’ll be going.”
“Oh Michael,” Ormes laughed again, “what do you think bleedin’ confession’s for?”
“If we ever see a priest. You think there’s a way back from the things we have done?”
Ormes said nothing. A large sea louse skittered between their leather cups. Miguel slammed his still soiled hand down, crunching the crustacean into a sticky pulp, he turned away flicking the pieces of shell from his palm.
“We’ll get back from this Michael, don’t you worry. You’ll be with your father in Portobello by Christmas I’d wager.”
“And my sister?” Miguel’s eyes pierced his own.
“We’ll do what we can matey, if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll damn well succeed.”
The Englishman’s words reassured Miguel, he breathed out, relaxing slightly in the damp ruin of a tavern. He needed reassurance, he needed to know it hadn’t been for nothing... the loss of his crewmen, the San Andro too – his beloved first command.
Some had survived the wreck some six hundred miles away, upon the isles east of Hispaniola, they had been loyal to a point, but had refused to go further, they said Maria was dead, the task was in vain. But it was his sister, his reputation – he had pushed them to the brink and they were broken. They had refused to go further.
He understood why they hadn’t followed, and he hoped if they still lived, they would understand why he and Ormes had taken the only boat with all the powder and rations, secreted away in the dark of night, abandoning the mutinous traitors on that foreboding spit of land they had been wrecked upon.
That’s why he needed the reassurance. “Sometimes I forget who I am...”
They drank. They drank lots…
Then they went to find some whores.
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