The Sign of the Yellow Jack

Submitted into Contest #40 in response to: Write a story about friends who wind up on a misadventure.... view prompt

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Adventure Historical Fiction Friendship

A brisk musky breeze invigorated with everything that bespoke the rolling blue sea fluttered the crisp pages of the logbook dangling from Captain Jones’s long, slender fingers. Lackadaisically, the young captain closed his eyes and leaned against the smooth rail of the quarterdeck, his chest rising as he inhaled a deep breath of the clean ocean air.

“You have the last account done, Jones?” inquired Captain Tates who was stroking the glossy feathers of one of the parrots brought aboard from the Canary Islands.

“Which one?” hummed Jones as his bright grey eyes snapped open and he glanced askance at his friend. “I seem to remember three different accounts I have written in the last hour…one with the natives pursuing old Robson and finally catching him to enslave them in their barbaric civilization, another that happened to have you eating what they called salavasa and dumping your intestines out right before them, and finally your trousers catching fire when you tried to dry them after that spill into the leech-infested pond.”

The amusement in Jones’s face was the slightest bit overmuch. Tates’s blue eyes widened and fair brows lifted in surprise, and the next moment Jones was keeling backward with his face stinging as if the African bees had finally succeeded in their mission back onshore. For a second, the man’s face flushed with annoyance, but brightened as if with the passing of one of the billowing clouds high above.

“Does everything you write have something to do with me?” laughed Tates when he saw in relief that he was out of danger for the moment. “I daresay I can now see why your father recommended that you leave the business of writing for the King.”

Jones scrunched up his pale face in a mock frown of anxiety and shook his head.

“I can only imagine what would have become of me. I half-fear I would have been forced to piracy after all…”

Both broke off into a gale of laughter as they recounted the old days when they had been two rapscallions tormenting London’s streets without a care in the world. As two officials to King William the Third, their fathers had been inseparable friends and counterparts, widowers whose wives’ lives had been taken by a strain of influenza. Amazingly enough, both scrawny boys had been spared and been the closest of friends for years.

Now, finally of-age and in need of finances of their own, they had been driven to privateering.

The sun glinted off of the turquoise-blue waves with sparkling radiancy under the canvas sails flapping in the wind. Now, Tates was standing alone on the quarterdeck with one slim, white hand balanced on the wheel and his blue eyes traveling far out to sea. Jones paced restlessly about the ship, his eyes preoccupied with the map he was now holding stretched out before him, his logbook tucked under his arm for safekeeping.

All of a sudden, Jones found himself on his hands and knees on the deck, his shins smarting and map ripped in two jagged pieces right before his eyes.

“Bloody Mary!” he ejaculated under his breath as he sprang back up to his feet, his grey eyes snapping in aggravation. “You there—Thompson…what is the meaning of this? Do you want us to reach the Southern Islands or not?”

A young fellow blinked back at the captain and swallowed several times as he shook his head. “I-I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t see you there.”

“I should think not,” scoffed Jones with a short laugh, forking his waves of chestnut hair back into place. “Keep your eyes above your boots. It’ll suit you better.”

“And maybe you should keep your eyes above that map,” snapped a voice from behind him as a heavy step sounded on the deck. “It’ll help you to keep your mind on things other than achieving your own ambition.”

Jones swung about on his heel and jerked an eyebrow up at first-mate Higgins who was standing with his arms folded and mouth pressed into a firm line. Clean-cut and always dressed as if he were about to meet William the Third at any moment, Jacob Higgins was six-foot-three and weighed as much as a whale shark would, Jones thought often with a snort. Along with that, he had a temperament that, under its general suavity, could be as fierce as a bull shark’s.

“Excuse me?” queried Jones. “You say something, Higgins?”

Suddenly, a shout from the forecastle brought Jones’s gaze to the forward port side of the bowsprit, and he heard a firm step beside him and Tates was by his side.

“It can’t be,” breathed Tates.

Beneath the broad blue sky, a large ship loomed on the horizon with sails flickering and a banner lifted high upon the mast rippling in the fresh sea breeze. Through the spyglass he lifted to his eye, Tates could barely make out the deck but enough to assure him of the fact that sent chills to his bones.

There wasn’t a living soul aboard.

Closing his eyes, Tates let a sigh rush through his lips and he turned to Jones whom he took by the arm and pulled apart from the small crowd of their crew gathering on the forecastle. The young captain ran his tongue across his dry lips and rubbed the back of his neck, hating the fact that Jones was already folding his arms and nodding as if he could read his mind.

“You think we should go aboard.”

“How—”

“Never mind asking how I know. We’ve been on this voyage for nearly three months…I think I can read your impassive features by now, friend Tates. If you really want to know, I saw your eyes linger on the yellow jack at the mast, your brows furrowing and eyes darkening with concern. You chewed the corner of your lip for a moment, glanced to the other men, and then at your own arm. Hence the look of concern passed, and you let out a sigh as if it had been decided. All that remained was to ask me.”

“It seems rather obvious, then,” remarked Tates indifferently as he rested his forearms on the railing and stared off into the distance.

“Not so to the others,” shrugged Jones, resting an assuring hand on his friend’s shoulder.

There was a silence for a moment as the two captains who had agreed on mutual power traced the waves to the ship drifting on the water.

“Whatever you decide, I will do,” Jones said quietly. “I trust your choice.”

“I wouldn’t go had it not been for this,” sighed Tates with an abrupt gesture at his left arm from which he had yanked his coat sleeve away. Flakes of parched skin drifted to the deck at the sudden motion, and the decayed, sallow skin starkly stood out in the fair sunshine. Black specks and streaks marred the parched skin, and it took everything for Jones to stand firmly beside his friend and look on at the fatal malady.

“What if they’re dying, Jones?”

“Are you certain it’s leprosy, though? Could be just an outbreak of dysentery or scurvy…”

“I don’t know what it is, Jones, but what I do know is that if I was on that ship dying with no chance of being brought back home, I’d be beyond grateful that someone risked everything to come save me.”

 

It was just before night, as the dusk was stealing in over the water and dimming the sparkling sea to a deep black-blue. A small rowboat pulled up alongside the barnacle-covered keel where a tattered net hung over the side and drooped almost to the surface of the water itself. In a swift movement, the rower anchored his oars and hastily bound a rope from the boat to the net. Deftly, the other man gripped the net and began to climb his way upward followed by the rower.

“It’s so silent,” whispered Jones, shaking his head. “I wonder how long they’ve been without supplies.”

Breathing with some difficulty as he shook out his left arm, Tates had fallen slightly behind in the climb and looked up at Jones’s downturned face with a frown puckering his smooth white brow.

“Take my hand,” beckoned the friend who had at that moment flung his body over the railing.

In an instant, both were standing upon the deck with their eyes straining through the dimness at the surroundings. Surprisingly clean and well-kept, the deck looked as if it had been recently sanded and swabbed, and the various barrels, ropes, and necessities were set in such a way as to be easily accessible to the crew. Two pairs of eyes scanned the deck from the far deck to the bowsprit, but no movement arrested their gazes but for the gentle fluttering of the slack sails and rope shrouds.

Without a word, both captains moved for the grate of the hatch and worked together to lift it before placing a foot down upon the steps leading downward into darkness. A bitter wind had picked up off of the water and sent chills skittering down their spines in the gathering darkness. There was a moment of hesitation as Jones hung back and gazed out across the water.

“What is it?” murmured Tates with a glance back at his friend.

“Sick men below,” Jones replied, nodding, as if he were reminding himself. Nevertheless, something held his step back as his grey eyes wandered uncannily up to the yellow jack gleaming ominously in the twilight.

The next moment, both were carefully picking their way down the dark, slick stairs and finally reached the hold that was as close and black as a casket. Suddenly, a small flicker of faint light somewhere several metres in front of them drew Tates and Jones’s steps forward.

Behind a metal grate that seemed to serve as a wide makeshift holding cell, an animal-like figure crouched with his grotesque face lifted upward as if in supplication and his bent and shriveled body literally rotting where he sat in mounds of matted straw and filth. Malodors hung in a haze in the cold air, the foul stench burning in the captains’ nostrils as they crouched down beside the cell.

“Leave!” croaked the man suddenly as he leapt at the bars and gripped them with twisted, bloodied fingers. “You should not have come here—leave before it is too late!”

“We have come to rescue the sick,” Tates smiled calmly as he nodded and reached out with his right hand to grasp the man’s hand in a reassuring grip.

Jerking his hand back as if from a white-hot poker, the man pressed his ribs back against the wall of the ship and stared back at them from two bulbous eyes that seemed as if they were about to fall from his pinched and sweat-bedewed face.

“Get out!” he rasped. “There is no place for the living here.”

At that moment, the hairs on the back of Jones’s neck began to prickle as his prided six-sense began to scream out that there was something amiss.

"What have we here?” chuckled a soft, cold voice from behind them.

Tears instantly started to Tates’s eyes as he followed Jones’s gaze to the tall, thin figure standing behind them with revolvers hanging with deadly ease in his supple fingers. Every part in his active brain was yelling out recognition as the man stepped closer into the small ring of light, the hollows under his cheekbones and the deep eyes cast in strange shadow while the ruby rings sparkled on his thin hands.

“Robert?” he queried in tonal disbelief, yet his eyes knew it to be none other. “Robert…you were-were dead.”

Ashy white with the two dark eyes staring out like live coals, Robert Dvorak’s face twisted into a managed smile as he raised a black eyebrow.

“Define dead,” he laughed bitterly with a shake of his head.

“You—know him?” Jones’s inquired in astonishment as he stumbled backward and swallowed hard. “Tates, I don’t understand…”

“Yes, Tates, maybe you should explain to your friend how we came to know each other,” suggested Robert with a brief lift of the corners of his mouth into a smile that could have once been said to have been pleasant.

Jones looked askance at Tates whose lower lip was quivering and his right hand subconsciously went to grasp his left arm. In all their lives, he had never remembered a time when he and Tates had been separated, a time when this man could have come into play. They had only been privateers for a matter of almost a year, not enough time for something to have happened that he had no knowledge of.

“We’re here to help the men, Robert,” Jones stated defiantly, pushing resolutely past any fear squeezing his noble heart sick. “I don’t care what issue you have with Tates here, but it is irrelevant. Step aside.”

“There are no sick men here, only a dying one,” said Robert as a strange glimmer passed through his eyes. “Does your conscience ever smart you at night, Tates? Do you ever feel that heaviness upon your soul, knowing that you are responsible for a whole crew’s death?”

“What?” Jones inquired in confusion as he glanced from Robert to Tates.

Covering his face with his shaking hands, Tates swallowed hard and bit his lip, the intense numbness in his left arm never so evident before.

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“Just as it wasn’t your fault that your brother caught it when you came back from the island. As it wasn’t your fault that the leprosy caught the crew when you came aboard even though you knew it would spread like wildfire. Just to avoid quarantine and never being able to return to England again.”

“It was contained in my one arm for whatever reason!” shouted Tates suddenly as his hands flew from his face and his deathly pale face glared up at Robert. “It has not spread, and the doctor had told me that it was ichthyosis—a noncontagious form of leprosy.”

“Oh, sure,” scoffed Robert with a mustered sardonic smile. “That’s a weak story to tell your conscience when it becomes unbearably heavy.”

“Well, if there’s nothing we can do here, then we’d best be going,” Jones said firmly as he stood and kept a protective hand on Tates’s shoulder. “You said that the crew is dead. I don’t see when this may have happened, but it’s in the past, and Tates has clearly said that you are wrong.”

“Oh, you may go if you’d like,” shrugged Robert with a flicker of a grin, “but once a stained past always a shadowed future. Rumors, shadows of doubts, half-truths…all can influence one’s career and possibly…one’s closest relations.”

Pain etched itself into every possible line of Tates’s face as he sprang to his feet and faced Robert with blue eyes full of cold fire, fingers closing around the revolver he kept ready at his belt just inside his coat.

“Give no quarter, eh? You’ve changed, Thomas Tates. More than just rotting away until you drop dead from the leprosy like the rest of the crew did…right before you joined up with privateering with this man here. I had imagined that you were a solid partner in the business with me, but never trust a man by his word, I have learned. Are you going to kill me?”

The revolver hung in Tates’s tensed hand, his forefinger trembling on the trigger as his thumb slid back and cocked the gun. For a second or two, all he could feel was the cold metal of the firearm until he felt Jones’s hand on his own, closing around the revolver.

“Tates,” he said in a low voice, keeping his eyes trained on the two revolvers Robert held.

“There’s no other way,” Tates quivered.

“Your reputation can stand for itself.”

Robert stood with his eyes fixed on the both of them, his dark lashes shrouding his eyes in an even darker shadow, but the steady glint was not lost.

“Bilge rats will be kept where they belong,” he stated evenly. “Your friend’s life for mine, Tates.”

As the man flicked his revolver upwards and yanked on the trigger, a sudden earsplitting crack sounded over the man’s head and he tumbled forward with the guns clattering to the ground. From behind, out stepped a stooped man who squinted through the darkness at the two captains standing side-by-side. Almost instantly, he fell to his knees and shakily tried to pull himself back up.

“Dr. Mullins!” gasped Tates incredulously. “I thought you were back in Capetown.”

The old man shook his head and wordlessly sat up with his eyes staring widely up at them both.

“He’s half-starved,” said Jones. “We need to bring him back to the ship right away and then return to see if there are any more that are imprisoned here.”

“I-I—didn’t think I’d live to see another day,” the doctor murmured past shriveled lips. “He kept me here because he knew that I was the only one that could testify to your condition, Captain.”

“And the others?” Jones inquired, peering down the hold to see glittering eyes fixated on them.

“They were men hired on after the original crew all passed from the leprosy that they unknowingly caught in Capetown when they went to the pub that you refused to go to. Of course, Dvorak didn’t admit that he was dying of leprosy. When they all caught it, he quarantined them down here without care until it was just him left.”

“And he didn’t want to blame himself,” murmured Tates with a glance at the motionless white face. “Jones…is there a chance…”

“That we would take him aboard and bring him to the help he needs in London?”

“I couldn’t ask.”

“You don’t have to. We’ll quarantine him on the lifeboat; he’s coming with us.”

May 05, 2020 21:07

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