Grace took a deep breath before taking up the looking glass. Ever since her fever broke and she had been awake, she had been running her fingers through the shortened hair. The lack of weight on her head was still strange. Now she would see if she deserved the pitying looks she received from Bartolo across the cabin.
First she saw her face. Even when she wore her long hair up, it had never revealed so much of her face. The eyes were hollow and still weary looking. The pallor of recent illness still lingered in her complexion. She was amazed to see that years seemed to have gone from her face, as though the long hair had been dragging it down.
Then she noticed the color. Long raven waves were replaced with dark silver strands surrounding her face. She reached up and played with the baby fine hair at the back of her neck.
The reflection staring back at her was difference but not unfamiliar. If anything, the confidence she possessed seemed to be even more evident. She smiled. Grace rather liked how shocking her appearance was likely to look to others.
“Poor Bartolo, I must be such an offence to your aesthetics,” she teased as she put down the glass.
He drew a short breath. “Nay, Captain! I was worried about your reaction to the loss of your beautiful hair.”
“Until I’ve gone bald and cannot regrow it, I doubt it’s worth the worry, Bartolo.”
Grace put the glass aside and reached for the curtains shading the cabin windows. Bright glaring light flooded the space.
“No doubt I will need to cover my head or roast in that sun. Pass me that silk scarf and my hat, please,” she said, pointing to the items Bartolo was trying to two away. The dark red and black silk tied to flow down her back mimicked her once flowing hair. She flashed Bartolo a smile and flourished the plumed hat before stepping out into the sunlight on deck.
The decks were a hive of activity. At midships the hatches were open and the men were hauling up casks, barrels, and equipment. One of the boats was being hauled back up the port side while the sick members of the crew were preparing to go ashore. The gently sloping beach directly across from the Siren Song’s anchorage had already sprouted tents and a blacksmith’s fire.
Grace climbed the steps to the quarterdeck willing her strength to return to her limbs. Hawkins in his capacity as quartermaster was barking orders left, right and center. He acknowledged her with a nod as she took up a post beside him.
As soon as he spotted her, Corvus, Grace’s adopted crow, cawed and hopped from his perch along the railing toward his lady. Grace lowered her hand and allowed him to perch on her wrist.
“I see that you ended the argument with Dr. Sloane about returning to your post,” Hawkins said out of the side of his mouth.
“Not much of an argument when there are clearly other crewmen more in need of his ministrations than I,” she replied as she stroked Corvus’ silky head.
They were both watching Dr. Sloane supervise the loading of the ship’s boat with those well enough to leave their births for the fresh and open air on the beach.
One of the men who had been aboard the ship’s boat from shore approached the Captain and Hawkins. Over Grace’s long illness, the crew had grown accustomed to Hawkins’ command and the man hesitated before deciding who to address.
“Speak man, for you clearly have news,” said Grace, solving the sailor’s dilemma.
“Aye, Captain,” the man responded and stood a little straighter. “As we were setting up camp, we spotted a few goats, ma’am.” He paused.
“Splendid, do go on,” she replied. She shot a look at Hawkins, but he merely shrugged.
“Me and a couple of the lads thought we’d try to catch a couple of ‘em and followed ‘em into the woods.” Again he paused.
“Get on with it, man,” Hawkins growled.
“Well, we spotted a camp in the woods not but a couple hundred yards from the beach, I recon. It looked to have been in use fairly recently, sir… uh ma’am,” he stuttered as he looked back and forth between them.
“So there might be reason to think that there be someone here before us?” Grace asked.
“Aye. And not some savage by the looks of some of the things left behind. Gibbs found a broken divider and what might have been bits of a chart.” He fished around in his the pockets of his threadbare trousers and presented the Captain with some scraps of brass and some bits of paper.
“Certainly not the belongings of a savage as you put it, Mister Poole,” Grace said as she received the items from him.
She handed the brass pieces to Hawkins and took a look at the scraps of paper.
“Thank you, Poole, you may return to shore with the boat.” Turning to Hawkins she said, “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about encountering the French or Spanish just yet. There are a few words in English here.
“Gibbs and Poole had the right of it about this too.” Hawkins traded the brass pieces with Grace for the paper. “This is part of a pair of brass dividers. So at one point maybe very recently, there was an English navigational officer on that beach.”
“English officer?” Grace asked.
“Aye, Captain. The maker’s mark here is a London guild that supplies the Royal Navy and a few of the larger merchant houses.”
“Well, that makes me less happy,” she replied.
“Aye. Best get ashore yourself and keep an eye on things. We should finish unloading before dusk. If there are enough healthy men ad the situation seems safe enough to ye, I’d recommend we careen the Song, Captain.”
“Agreed, Hawkins. Carry on and I’ll see to making the camp secure.” She looked down to the crow perched on her forearm. His beady black eyes had been following the conversation. “Ready to go ashore, Corvus?”
The bird squawked and trilled as if he was trying to form words and walked up her arm to perch on her shoulder.
Meanwhile, Bartolo had finished setting the Captain’s cabin straight and retrieved his mandolin. It had been a very cold evening the last time he’s played it a few weeks prior. Grace had developed a fever not long after, and he hadn’t had a moment to pick it up since. He rubbed a bit of linseed oil into the body of the instrument, hoping to preserve the finish in spite of the salt, humidity,and shifting temperatures.
Despite opening the cabin windows for a cross breeze, it was still hot and stifling. Leonardo Bartolo mopped the sweat from his bald pate, preventing it from rolling through his bushy iron gray eyebrows and into his eyes as he worked to tune his mandolin.
He struck a chord. The warming temperature had loosened the strings and the instrument sounded sad and flat. Carefully, he turned the pegs and plucked the strings until the mandolin’s voice was once again bright and sweet.
As he began to play his favorite tune, an old Italian lullaby his grandmother used to sing, Grace and Corvus entered.
“Don’t stop on our account,” Grace said smiling at him.
Bartolo self-consciously traced the line of his silver mustache and pointed beard with his hand before he continued playing.
Grace sat to listen to the soothing tune. She noticed that Bartolo’s olive skin, darkened by decades on deck in the sun, creased around his mouth and eyes as he concentrated on the melody. Corvus remained perched on her shoulder, bobbing in time with the tune.
Bartolo resolved the chord at the end of the chorus and put the mandolin back in its case. “I didn’t expect you back so quickly,” he said.
“I’ve decided to go ashore immediately,” she replied. “Juan Fernandez is not as uninhabited as we thought.”
“What do you say, Bartolo? Shall we see if there be any mischief ashore?”
Bartolo adjusted the spectacles perched on his nose and handed Grace her cutlass and pistol. He then strapped his cutlass to his waist and hung a brace of pistols across his chest. Smiling, he said, “if there be mischief ashore, mistress, likely it will land with us.”
It didn’t take long before Grace, Bartolo, and a couple of crewmen were ferrying a load of water barrels across the bay.
Although far from home, the crew treated the time ashore on Isla Juan Fernandez just as they did their home base in the Caribbean. As soon as Captain Grace O’Malley set her foot on the beach, several of the men came to her about a hearing. Clearly her illness had not shaken the crew’s confidence in her. She agreed that a hearing and a vote were necessary and arranged for a gathering around the bonfire at dusk that evening.
Turning to Bartolo, who had stayed close on her heels, she said, “the sooner we all get things back to normal the better. I’m glad they fell back into their habits. Otherwise, I would have to call for a quorum and a force a vote.”
“Poole is a dolt, Captain,” replied Bartolo. “He can’t think passed the moment he’s living.”
“Even so, he had enough sense to bring back evidence of his claim to have found a habitation.” Grace continued to walk during their tet-a-tet. “And I doubt we will have an opportunity to see into it until morning.” She paused to greet the men setting up a pavilion out of a worn out sail.
“I hope there is no objection to the use of canvas that’s no longer fit for rigging, Captain,” declared Dr. Sloane as he approached.
“At least you have enough sense to know what a threadbare sail looks like, doctor,” she replied.
Dr. Sloane waved over one of the men helping him. “Fetch water for these two, please.” To Grace and Bartolo he added, “I’ll not have you relapsing now that your are back in command.”
“Mercy, doctor, stop coddling me. Rather, fill me in on the health of the crew.”
“Aye, Captain.” Sloane grinned as she sipped the offered water. “Most of the men I’ve seen so far are suffering from poor diet and in need of fresh air and water. I’ve noted four suffering with advanced stages of scurvy. John King’s wrist seems to have broken again, and two others have old wounds that have reopened. I intend to keep those least fit to work sheltered here until they start to recover their strength and aren’t running a risk of infection.”
“Very good,” Grace replied and handed the water cup back to Sloane. “Carry on. There will be a general report a vote at dusk. Try to get as many there as you can. I’d like to see full participation of those currently ashore. I’d like to get on with work, but if there are enough personal issues to warrant it, we will arrange to carry on with hearings tomorrow. All seems safe for a while but we have no idea of the comings and goings in these waters.”
Grace and Bartolo spent the balance of the afternoon reviewing the camp and admonishing all to participate in the vote that evening. The shadows had grown long by the time Grace made it to the far side of the camp where shelters and hammocks had been rigged for sleeping. In the deep shade of one of the shelters tucked back into the trees, Bartolo had arranged a light repast. Corvus was again perched on her shoulder and began to hop and squawk with excitement as they approached.
“Time for a meal, Corvus?” Grace reached up to pat the bird, but he flapped his wings and leapt into the air. She watched as he wheeled above her head and then made for for the trees. As she followed him with her eyes, she thought she spotted a flash of light in the bush a few yard distant. Corvus seemed to be heading in the same direction. Grace smiled. Likely the pilfering bird had spied something shiny to add to his growing collection of oddments. She turned her gaze back to the small table laid out for tea.
Bartolo was bustling around the area, more like a hummingbird than a man. For several moments Grace sat very still, watching and wondering how long it would take him to pause and notice her. Soon all the purpose of his activity was spent.
“Bartolo, please sit. This useless buzzing makes me weary,” she said at last.
He stopped. There was a look of wondering amazement on his face, as if she had suddenly appeared on the spot.
“Sorry, Captain,” he stammered. Yet, he didn’t make a move to join her. He looked back into the trees. “Maybe it is my imagination, but I feel as though something is watching us.”
“Then let it watch. Come, sit and eat.”
Bartolo picked at the food rather than eat as admonished, but he was no longer distracting Grace from her thoughts.
She stared back across the bay and tried to recall her purpose and confidence. The sun was already dipping low behind them. The siren song was floating in a wash of gold, her sails glowing against the dark in sky. A couple of the boats were ferrying the last load of the day up to the beach. A soft calming rhythm beat against the sand as the sheltered waters lapped at the beach. Grace could feel the air taking on the softness of a fair evening breeze. The gently swaying palms added their whispering voices nature’s evensong. Grace could see Hawkins setting up the bonfire further down the beach. She watched over the rim of her tankard of grog as the woodpile grew. A slight smile crept across her face at how Bartolo insisted on referring to the grog as tea.
Grace’s only objective when they set sail from their home waters in the Caribbean was to get as far away as possible. The reality that she wasn’t leading the crew toward any particular objective gnawed at her sense of worth.
“ I don’t know these waters and I have no purpose for being here,” she thought. “ What am I doing?”
“Sorry, Captain, were you speaking to me?” Bartolo asked.
“hm? No, Bartolo I was thinking to myself. My mind feels cloudy, like being in a fog without a compass.”
Before Bartolo could compose a response he liked, Hawkins came striding up the beach. His weathered face was cracked with a huge grin.
“Captain! The whole camp is buzzing with wild speculation. They are all excited to vote on the next campaign. Some are talking about raiding up and down the coast for every little Spanish vessel we can find. A few of the old sea dogs are waxing nostalgic about sacking the city of Panama with Sir Henry Morgan. Others are hoping that we will follow the course of Sir Francis Drake and take the Manila galleon. Why, even Dr. Sloane has managed to convince a few that we are trekking Inland in search of the famous city of El Dorado. I doubt there is a scheme mad enough to keep them from voting for it.” He removed his hat with a flourish and took a deep bow before her. “If you wanted to storm the silver mountain at Potosi, I think they’d all follow you to do it.”
Bartolo chuckled. “It seems as though the years of leadership have rubbed off on this crew, Captain. They are able to come up with all your ideas before you do.”
“Very funny, Bartolo. That will be enough of that. Sit, Hawkins. El Dorado is obviously the good doctor’s idea of a joke. While I might consider capturing a few small ships in the short term, no one will be happy with that for long. I don’t much like the idea of sacking a city in the style of Morgan. He was too keen to fight it out on land and had an army of buccaneers behind him. Blockading a town for ransom might be possible if we had another ship or two. Same goes for the Galleon. The payoff for the effort is more to my liking, but we can’t accomplish it with only the Siren Song.”
“Raid the coast until we have a suitable flotilla and then hit a coastal town?” suggested Hawkins.
“Yes to the first part, but I prefer the Manila galleon instead of a town. Too much potential for things to go wrong when you are dealing with treasure spread all over a town rather than confined to the hold of a ship,” Grace replied.
At that moment the bonfire was lit and the crew began to gather.
Grace rose from her seat and motioned down the beach. “Shall we tarry no longer, gentlemen?”