The small rowing boat rose and fell as it rode the gentle swell of the waves, making steady progress toward the two bobbing masts of a larger boat anchored in the distance. After one last long and weary heave Alvez lay down the oars and launched himself at the net which hung down over the side of the larger boat and, with what felt like a herculean effort, hauled himself aboard. Never had Alvez felt happier to be back on The Pig. For five years he had been her Captain, ever since he lost a wager and became her new owner; the name he bestowed on her a reflection of his initial disdain for the vessel. Many times over those years he had tried to lose her but here they were, still together, and he now accepted that despite his best efforts this was their fate. She was slow, unwieldy and much of the time seemed to have a mind of her own. But she was also solid, reliable and had emerged relatively unscathed from their adventures so far and had, over time, earned his grudging respect.
Alvez cast a wary eye over the water but could still see no sign of the native canoes. ‘That was a close call,’ he sighed slumping heavily to the deck, ‘now then, where is it?’
Wearily Pukunati eased himself up from where he lay exhausted on the damp deck and reached inside the leather bag slung across his back. Carefully he removed a bundle of sack cloth and slowly began to unwrap it. Alvez’s eyes widened, ‘so the stories were correct,’ he said breathlessly as, with great reverence, he took the human skull and studied it closely, ‘did everything go to plan? You were a long time.’
‘Everything went to plan,’ nodded the boy.
Slowly Alvez rotated the skull in his hands; feeling its weight, noting the pattern of the sutures, running his fingers across the smooth bone and examining the cork which sealed the base. Briefly, with a shudder, he wondered what fate might have befallen this unfortunate soul then, reverence cast aside, he poked his fingers in through an eye socket and began to pluck out the now damp straw which had been used to pad the inside of the cavity.
‘I can see something,’ exclaimed Pukunati.
Alvez looked up with a start. He had been so engrossed in the contents of their find that he had temporarily forgotten all about the boy at his shoulder, ‘yes, it seems to contain a small bottle,’ he muttered distractedly, peering through the eye socket at the small glass object.
‘No,’ said the boy, ‘I can see something, a mast I think.’
With a spasm of anxiety, Alvez rose to his feet and followed the boy’s gaze, toward the horizon, with his spyglass. Carefully he studied the distant vessel; she was of middling size and did not appear to be a boat of the crown as she displayed none of the trappings or colours that would be expected. It was possible she was a trading vessel but something did not feel quite right. At the moment she showed little sail but, as the gap between them continued to slowly close, he noted with interest that her rigging was a little unusual - perhaps set for speed and manoeuvrability he wondered. He also observed, with growing unease, that she appeared to carry many more cannons than might be expected for a boat of her size and he felt his pulse surge with the realisation that if you were designing a vessel to bring mischief to the high seas then this may well be it.
‘What do you think?’ asked the boy.
‘I think that she is just a trading vessel,’ Alvez declared slowly, trying to keep the concern from his voice, ‘and I cannot imagine that we would be of any interest to her. That said,’ he continued, ‘it would be wise to be prudent given our most precious cargo. Hoist the main sail,’ he said quietly, ‘we should get away from here.’ He watched with satisfaction as overhead the fan-shaped mainsail caught the wind, pushing them westward to where the sun now almost touched the sea; soon the cloak of darkness will claim and protect us he thought with relief. Carefully, he took the skull and reluctantly stowed it away safely in a small cubby hole until he could be sure they had the time to investigate its contents untroubled.
For much of the night, working in shifts, Alvez and Pukunati laboured to put as much ocean as possible between The Pig and the worrisome boat. In the cold dark of the early hours Alvez’s thoughts strayed to the most famous of pirates, John Booth. For over a decade the scourge of the Southern Seas, Booth’s villainous deeds were infamous: gold, jewels, silk and spices were the riches he craved and he stole prodigiously, from anyone and everyone without favour or prejudice. Seafarers far and wide lived in fear. Then, suddenly, the plundering stopped and nothing more was heard of Booth. Some said his boat, The Dread, had been lost in a fierce storm. Others that he was being held captive by a native tribe in the darkest depths of some long-forsaken bit of jungle or had met with a grisly end; devoured by cannibals rumoured to still inhabit some of the remotest islands. Many however liked to think Booth alive and well, living like a King, sat amongst piles of gold and jewels on some tropical island paradise. But all, no matter what they thought, wanted to believe Booth’s treasure was out there, somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.
Gradually, over time, the tales of John Booth faded from memory; until that was, some years later, when a new story began to emerge and circulate the taverns where men who might have an interest in hunting treasure would gather. In Booth’s absence old trade routes were re-established and new markets and opportunities sought; and it was in such encounters with some of the more friendly native tribes that merchants had heard tell what was claimed to be the true story of John Booth’s disappearance. It was said, in hushed tones, that the infamous captain had simply become disillusioned with a life of piracy, the constant persecution by the authorities and the annoyance of dealing with thieves who wished to take what he had worked so hard to achieve had become wearying. But Booth knew he could never merely sail away and put his past behind him, others would always come looking. Therefore, he formulated a plan and convinced his second in command, Ashann, a renowned and fearsome warrior, to help him. Not that Ashann took much convincing, a wise man did not refuse John Booth lightly. And so, it followed that one day every man who served on The Dread was wished well and received a handsome share of the treasure they had helped to procure over the years. Booth then purchased a small boat and he and Ashann sailed off into the sunset taking the most rare and valuable riches with them. But, despite Booth’s disappearance and the disbandment of The Dread’s crew, the authorities, desperate to bring order to the high seas and to make an example of the notorious pirate, continued to hunt him and his men relentlessly until, eventually, they had Booth hemmed in amongst a vast archipelago of islands. Employing all their resources, the authorities methodically scoured the waterways in the hunt for the pirate until, in desperation, when all hope of escape seemed lost, Booth had been forced to sail into the eye of one of the worst storms in living memory in a final bid to evade the noose. When the storm finally cleared the sorry wreckage of a small boat was found scattered over the ocean far and wide and Booth, Ashann and the treasure were never seen or heard of again.
Over the years Alvez had heard so many stories and tales about the infamous John Booth that it was impossible to know where the truth ended and fiction began. As a child Booth had even been employed as a fearsome bogey man to keep the mischievous Alvez in line if ever he misbehaved…. if you aren’t a good boy, John Booth will come and get you…. And it probably worked, he reflected, what child would not have been brought into line by the idea that a notorious, blood-thirsty pirate, complete with the obligatory cutlass and eye patch, was coming to get them when they did wrong. As a result, anything Alvez now heard of Booth and his mounds of riches was taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Until that was, one day, when he happened to overhear a snippet of conversation between two drunken, off-duty soldiers in a small tavern where he was eating. The men talked in hushed and fearful tones about the likelihood of being sent to tackle a tribe, on some far-flung island called Karno, who had recently gained a fearsome warrior as their new Chief. The warrior had apparently turned up out of the blue one day, baring the secret to a gift of untold value and, in the next breath, had issued a death match challenge to the incumbent Chief for leadership of the tribe. Moments later it was out with the old and in with the new as the new arrival wielded his long, wooden war club to devastating effect. This fearsome warrior was apparently now revered as a God by the tribe, who had rediscovered, in his honour, the cannibalistic rituals they had previously forsaken. The name of this fearsome warrior was Ashann…. and The Pig had sailed for Karno on the next tide.