The Secret

Once Upon a Tide…

Midsummer of 1761 found Vik Brandee and Hezekiah Grimm in a small ketch just off the southwest shore of Puerto Rico. As they waited for dark to head to shore, they did their best to appear to be fishermen. Once ashore, they would have to trek into the jungle to meet their contact.

Vik showed Grimm how to use a cast net. “I can’t believe you’ve never done this before, Hezekiah. You’ve been at sea longer than I have.”

“Never had to, Vik.” Grimm held the net like he’d been shown, or so he thought. “Usually had enough supplies to last the voyage. In port, I always had enough coin to get a good meal, or found some wench willing to feed me for free.”

“You have to hold the top edge in your mouth to keep it stretched out.” Vik put his own edge in his mouth to show his second mate how. He held one side of the net in each hand with the draw rope’s end wrapped around his wrist. Once he was sure Grimm held the net correctly, he twisted to the side then snapped back the other way, releasing the net at the apex of the swing. The cast net spun out over the water in an almost perfect disc before it hit the surface. The stone weights around the edge quickly drew it under. He let it sink until the rope had no more slack, then gave a quick jerk on the rope to close the net before drawing it back up.

Grimm did his best to mimic his captain’s cast. He felt gratified to see his own net sail out across the water in much the same fashion.

“Not bad. With some practice, you could be very good at this,” Vik praised the older man.

“How did you learn to do this? More importantly, why?”

Vik lifted his net up onto the boat. There were only a couple of fish in it, neither an edible species. “Hmph, good thing we’re not fishing for profit or food right now,” he grunted in disgust. “I grew up in the salt marshes near Savannah. Learned how to cast a net as soon as I was big enough to hold one. Mother Celie was not a rich woman, and it was often cheaper and easier to catch fish or shrimp than to buy food.”

“That makes sense. I grew up inland, but I took to the sea as soon as I saw her.” Grimm began to pull his own net up. He gave a startled cry when the draw rope went taut and began to jerk from side to side. “Whoa! I’ve got a fighter, Vik! Strong one, too.”

“Need some help?”

He shook his head. “No, I think I can handle it. It just caught me by surprise.”

He wrestled with the net’s draw rope. Slowly, he managed to bring up the net and whatever he had caught to the surface. Both men marveled at the large ray that thrashed about in the cast net.

Vik whistled. “No wonder you had such a fight. Look at the wingspan on that thing!”

The ray nearly filled the bottom of their ketch. It thrashed about wildly, which made it difficult to remove the net. The boat rocked so violently, it threatened to capsize.

“I think we’re going to have to cut the net, Captain.”

“Agreed; we need to get this thing off the boat before it sinks us.”

Both men drew their knives and began to hack at the mesh of the net in an effort to free the ray. The terrified creature only knew it had to return to the water. The longer it remained in the air, the more frantic its thrashing became. Suffocating in the alien environment, it was a victim of instinct and panic.

Viktor let out a garbled scream when the ray’s barbed sting stabbed through the muscle of his calf. Grimm reacted quickly and slashed down with his heavy knife to sever the barb from the animal.

The shock of the maiming caused the ray to seize up. This allowed Grimm enough time to lever it back over the side.

The boat gradually settled in the calm water. Grimm knelt to examine the damage his captain had suffered. The spiny barb was lodged in his leg and stuck out from both sides of the wound. Luckily, the bleeding wasn’t bad yet.

Vik sat covered in clammy sweat as shock threatened to make him pass out. Grimm stopped him when he reached for the severed end of the sting. He shook his head. “We need to push it through, Vik. If you try to pull it out that way, the barbs will shred the flesh and poison you. Plus, it would hurt more.”

“It can’t hurt much more than this,” Vik growled. “Do what you have to, Mr. Grimm.”

Grimm wrapped some sailcloth around the barbed end to protect his hands. He grasped the sting firmly and yanked it on through the wound. This time, Viktor did pass out.

*

When the young pirate woke, the sun had already set. His leg felt like it was on fire. He looked down at it in the lamplight and saw it had already swollen to twice its natural girth from knee to ankle.

Grimm saw he was awake and handed him a flask of rum. “Here, this should help deaden the leg a bit. I cleaned it out as best I could before stitching it up.”

Vik took the bottle and frowned at the lightness of it. “We brought more rum than this.”

“Aye. Figured the rum was better than seawater for that leg. Didn’t look like any of the stinger broke off in ye, so it should heal clean.”

“Thank you, Hezekiah. I’d hate to lose the limb.  I’m rather attached to it,” he said in an attempt to joke around the pain. “Where are we?”

“A couple of leagues up the river. We still have a half hour before the rendezvous. Do you think you’ll be able to stand up for it, Captain?”

“I’m going to have to. Carmine is not to be trusted; especially if he thinks we are weak.”

Grimm nodded his understanding. He’d never dealt with the man personally, but Carmine Fuentez had a reputation as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to sell a man out, if there was a profit in it. He also had a reputation as a coward. If he thought a deal might come back to bite him, he would avoid it like the plague.

“Remind me again why we are even dealing with this bilge rat.”

“Because he can get what we want more quickly than we can,” Vik answered. “And he knows not to cross me.”

Grimm laughed. “You can be a scary bastard. I’m surprised you didn’t bring Rigger along.”

“Couldn’t; not and hope to seal the deal, anyway. Jim almost killed Carmine the last time we had dealings. Hell, I couldn’t even tell him who we were dealing with this time.”

“What did the rat do to anger the lad so?”

“I wasn’t in the room at the time, and Jim won’t talk about it. The hatred is strong enough that my first mate resents the very fact that Carmine still draws breath.”

Grimm grunted. “Must have been pretty bad.”

“Indeed.”

*

After they grounded the ketch in a side shallow, Grimm helped Viktor out of the boat. The swelling in his leg had gone down some, but it still hurt and burned. They both agreed they needed to conclude their business quickly. The shadows would help hide the swelling.

Carmine had a large bonfire going. It burned so brightly, it blinded them to the dark jungle that surrounded them. This put both pirates immediately on the alert. For a man who didn’t like to draw attention, Carmine seemed to be doing his best to be found by anyone curious about the blaze.

“Stay sharp, Mr. Grimm. This doesn’t feel right.”

“Aye, Captain, it doesn’t.”

Their contact soon showed himself along with a couple of burly men, presumably his bodyguards. “I see you didn’t bring that brat with you this time.”

Vik kept his voice and face neutral. “Considering how well you two get along, I thought it best.”

“Who is this?” Carmine pointed at Grimm.

“My second mate.”

The smuggler persisted. “I thought as much, Brandee, but I’d like to know his name. I want to know the people I’m dealing with.”

“Will it make this deal go more quickly?” Vik sighed. Grimm noted his captain attempting to hide his growing irritation. Carmine was stalling, which was not a good sign. It meant either he didn’t have the item, or this was a trap.

“It will.”

“Fine. Carmine Fuentez, meet Hezekiah Grimm.”

The smuggler visibly paled. “The Grimm Reaper. I’d heard rumors he was sailing with you.”

It came as no surprise that Grimm’s reputation frightened the smuggler more than Viktor’s did. The second mate had been pirating longer than the pirate captain. Plus, Hezekiah was nearly thirty, an age few pirates lived to see, whereas Viktor was only twenty-two.

The information made Carmine nervous enough to spring his trap prematurely. “They’re here! Take them now!”

Vik and Grimm immediately bolted for the darkness of the jungle. They had purposely hung back from the fire, just in case something like this happened. There was much cursing as their would-be captors had to change course to pursue them. The two pirates knew they’d been lucky to pick a spot that hadn’t been closed in yet, but they also knew their luck might not hold out.

“Split!” Vik ordered as they ran. Grimm veered off away from him.

*

The younger pirate’s luck soon ran out, however. His wounded leg betrayed him; some of the stitches popped loose, and the wound tore wider due to his exertion. The leg collapsed under him. His pursuers were on him in seconds and tossed a snare net over him to prevent him from fighting back.

One of them cudgeled him, and he lost consciousness.

*

Grimm managed to elude the hunters chasing him. Only two had followed. The rest had gone after Brandee. He knew his captain had been captured. He’d heard the shout of the young man’s pursuers.

Once sure his own pursuers had left off the chase, he circled back to the meeting point and hid in the shadows. He did this for two reasons: One, Vik Brandee had earned his loyalty. Even though the man was younger than him by several years, he had proved the best pirate captain Grimm had ever served under. Two, the hunters probably had someone watching their boat in the hopes of catching him as well.

Grimm kept his guard up to ensure no one crept up on him, and watched the encampment. Carmine had six men with him. Clearly, he’d underestimated the two pirates. If Brandee hadn’t been injured, they wouldn’t have caught him. Grimm listened to the pirate hunters and quickly formed a plan.

Grimm had been right. They’d left one man to watch the ketch. Grimm slipped into the water several yards upstream from the boat. He’d blackened his face with river mud so he wouldn’t be easily seen in the water. Just as he’d figured, the guard watched the jungle, not the river. He climbed into the boat silently and crept toward the man.

The hapless pirate hunter never even saw the blade that slit his throat.

Grimm stripped the body of weapons and valuables, then hid to the side of the path. “Hurry!” he shouted. “I’ve got him!”

Soon, two more hunters ran crashing through the jungle. They stopped short at the sight of their partner’s body. It was all the distraction Grimm needed. He skewered one and shot the other in the head before either could react. He quickly retreated to the shadows and made his way back to the encampment. He knew the gunshot would draw the others.

Once he returned to the campfire, where Vik was being held, he saw that all but Carmine had gone to help at the boat. He also saw that Vik was awake but seemed to be feigning unconsciousness. His captors had made the mistake of tying his hands in front of him.

Carmine smiled down cruelly at his captive. He muttered to himself as he grabbed Vik’s trousers by the waistband and pulled them to his knees. “I’d hoped for a shot at that whelp you call first mate, but you’re still young enough and pretty enough to suit my tastes.”

He dropped his own trou and started working himself erect, his attention focused solely on his victim’s ass.

Slowly enough to not draw attention, Vik eased his hands up to his head. He managed to slip out the knife he always kept at the nape of his neck, hidden under his hair, unnoticed.

Grimm deliberately entered the clearing on the other side of his captain from their betrayer.

“Carmine.”

The fool still thought Vik was out of it and started to step over him. He began to raise his weapon, but never got it leveled. Brandee stabbed upward and caught him in the inner thigh close to the groin. Carmine let out a strangled scream when Brandee twisted the blade to slice open the femoral artery.

Grimm moved quickly to them and kicked the weapon out of the dying man’s hand. He then buried his own blade under Carmine’s ribs.

The traitorous smuggler collapsed. Blood burbled from his mouth and nose and spurted from his leg—in time with his slowing heartbeat. As the flow slowed, his eyes glazed. Within minutes, he lay dead.

Meanwhile, Grimm helped his captain get free of his bonds. Brandee quickly pulled his trousers back up, but had trouble standing. The bandages on his wound had soaked through with fresh blood from the torn stitches.

“Do you think you can walk?”

“Aye. It hurts, but it still works. I just won’t be able to run or move fast,” Vik replied. “We need to get into the jungle before they come back.”

Grimm nodded. “There are only four left. I killed three by the boat.”

“I like those odds.”

*

By morning, the remaining hunters were dead. The two pirates were back on their ketch and making plans to acquire what they’d thought to get from Carmine. It ended up costing much less, since they found a place to just steal it.

The real hold up on their return to the ship was finding a decent physician to treat Vik’s leg wound. The infection had reached the point that Vik feared he might lose the leg after all.

Grimm didn’t really trust physicians in general. He’d seen too many good sailors butchered by them.

They were three days from the nearest port when the fever took Viktor. Grimm knew his captain’s life hung in the balance, but he had favorable winds to speed them to the one person who might be able to save both Vik’s leg and his life.

*

Mother Celie always seemed to know when her adopted son would visit. Grimm wasn’t a superstitious man, but even he had to admit there was something uncanny about the old woman that had raised Vik Brandee.

“You got him here just in time, Hezekiah.” She frowned at Vik’s swollen leg as she spoke. “Now shoo. Go swap lies with old Billy Black. This boy is going to need a month to heal enough to travel again.”

He obeyed but made a point to come check on his captain’s progress every day. Finally, the old swamp witch declared the boy healthy, she was sick of the sight of both of them, and wanted them out of her hut.

*

They eventually made it back to their ship. As agreed, Grimm never discussed where they had been or what had happened, nor did Viktor.

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