Life on a pirate ship certainly has it's own set of ways and rules, such as the bad luck of having a woman on board.
Kate found herself falling into the easy rhythm of daily life on a ship: Rise with the sun, work, relax a bit after dark and then sleep, punctuated by the watch bells. Water, sun, sky and wind were a constant, the only variable being the amounts of either at any given point.
Word of her below-deck surgery spread very quickly through the crew and she found the men treating her with kindness and respect. Odd little cares and favors would appear or be timidly offered. Someone must have noticed her preference for sitting at the bow, and so an arrangement of crates strongly resembling a chair suddenly appeared there. Mr. Kirkland discovered she relished a cup of coffee in the morning and thus one was ready on the table each morning with a drab of milk, just the way she liked. Each night, as she went her bunk, the quilt would be turned back, a lamp lighting her way. Raucous talk shifted to more benign conversation as she passed; swearing softened considerably. As far as she was concerned neither was necessary, but she did appreciate the thought and effort.
In exchange for those little niceties, it became clear that her obligation to them was to tend their bodies. Life on a ship provided a constant flow of cuts, fractures, scrapes, burns, dislocations, stabs, splinters, and broad array of maladies. One by one, the men came to her, often with some vague excuse or injury, approaching with shyness that was almost childish at times. She would chide and scold then give comfort. Given a few minutes, the conversation would lead to what they had really come for—to talk, to tell her their story, their personal saga. Many times, it was the same; sometimes it would be different. Most were stories of lost loves or desertion of family. The sea called some, others stumbled onto it. A few were press-ganged years ago during the war then dropped by the Royal Navy when King George no longer had need of them. Each of them seemed to glow under her attentions. Perhaps it was the opportunity to feel a woman's touch or to hear a woman's voice in private conversation. Whatever the motivation, they accepted her, and made her feel useful.
Marty was one with a different story. There was no place in society for him, save perhaps the circus or some of the darker pleasure houses of London. Here at sea, as a pirate, nonconformity and peculiarity were accepted, the norm, but being a dwarf was still too often too far off the mark. After serving on several ships and being put off most of them rather unceremoniously, he found the Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl. Jack had been willing to take him on without question, expecting from Marty only what he expected from any other seaman. He was devoted to Jack, as were many she was soon to find out.
Mr. Cotton was the exception, by default. Unable to speak, his bird with a limited vocabulary, his story was a mystery. Behind the deeply weathered wrinkles and grizzled beard was a gentle face with kindly eyes. He tended to lurk around his captain. In fact, he doted on Jack, always in anticipation of his every need. It was a rare moment when Jack could reach out his right hand and Mr. Cotton wasn't there.
Many of the sailor’s stories had the same common thread: They all had the greatest respect and admiration for Jack. For some, it stemmed from gratitude, because he was the last captain in the Caribbean who would give them a chance. Others appreciated Jack's preference for negotiating rather than fighting, finding easier ways other than slash, kill, burn and mayhem. They recognized he was a man of his word—an honorable man in a violent, barbaric world.
Mr. Gibbs was another story. Contrary to the other men, he never approached her. He was overtly pleasant and responsive, excessively courteous and always informative, but never gave an avenue into his past. An endless fountain of tales and superstitions, everyone else's story was more his specialty, and was more than willing to share his repertoire. His devotion to Jack was obvious, and his authority was unquestioned. Competent and meticulously fair, there were very few complaints from the crew.
Pintel and Ragetti were the most interesting. Complete opposites on the surface, they were nearly inseparable. It was rare to see one without the other at least within earshot. Pintel was short and square of body and head. Clearly, the older of the two, he was mostly bald with a very thinning fringe of hair that hung in tangled threads about his shoulders. Thick-featured and thick-bodied, he was the antithesis of Ragetti, who stood tall and pencil-thin with a scarecrow quality about him. His most dominating feature, beside a very strong hooked nose, was his eyes. They were exceptionally large and protruding—except one was missing, having been replaced by a crude wooden one.
Not a lot was known about the duo. Clearly they were products of the Royal Navy, for they still wore the uniform, although like Gibbs, the cloth was severely worn and tattered, faded to near colorlessness by the sun and deeply stained by sweat. They had been a part of the mutiny against Jack some years ago, but Kate had the impression they knew Jack well before that. Since then, they, along with Gibbs and Mr. Cotton, had been with Jack the longest.
The two bickered and bantered incessantly. Together, they could be the ship’s entertainment, or the ship’s pestilence. Some days, their antics had everyone laughing. Other days, the crew would avoid them, weary of the unending jabber. Even Jack had been known to bellow, “Oh, shut it!” from the quarterdeck.
Less clear for Kate was the matter of her own fate. It would seem she wasn’t to be turned in to the Royal Navy for the reward; Jack declared he had never been that desperate for money. She pressed for several more days as to what he planned to do with her. Exasperated by her endless pursuit, he finally relented; the first port suitable, she would be put ashore. The knowledge was a relief; she had, at last, some indication of a future, in spite of the fact, her long-term prospects weren’t good. In London, she had barely been able to scrape by as a seamstress. She doubted whether she could make a successful living sewing in the Caribbean.
The first port they made seemed sizable enough and she started to make preparations to depart. Abruptly, Jack announced the town was too small and the Pearl left, with her still on board. The second town Jack declared too prone to being raided. The next port he pointed out was too near a garrison. The fourth he and Gibbs agreed had a history of bad luck. She asked if there was ever going to be a place that met his approval. Her answer was a shrug and a dismissive wave of the hand as he swaggered away.
Kate found it all confusing. During the near three months on the trip from England, the first mate and crew of the Melody constantly railed about women on board and bad luck. She had fully expected a similar attitude from the crew of the Black Pearl. She made her case to Jack. Again, a shrug and a flap of the hand was her only answer. She pressed her case to Mr. Gibbs, knowing his proclivity for superstition.
“Aye, Miss, ye’ve a point there,” he agreed, his wide mouth pressing tightly in thought.
A meeting of the crew was convened. Somewhere, she was lost in the exact logic of the debate. The final outcome, however, punctuated by a unified cheer, was from that point on she was to be addressed as “Mr. Kate.”
Jack nodded in agreement. “I’m good with it!”
The subject was closed.
The other contention, besides her captivity status, was the sleeping arrangements. Upon her rather unceremonious arrival to the Black Pearl, Kate had been deposited in the captain’s bunk. After the first few nights, she had anticipated being relocated. She understood there were a couple of small cabins below decks, off the crew's quarters. She expected to be relegated there, but Jack had insisted she stay where she was, being accustomed and all, he explained.
By the third night, it became apparent that, for the short term, the captain’s bunk would be her place of residence. And that being the case, there were some details that needed to be attended to.
Having just finished his morning watch, Jack ambled down the gangway toward his cabin. The winds had been fair and steady, with only low waves to offer any sort of impediment to the Black Pearl’s course, but he still wanted to check the charts for some shoals he thought he recalled not too far ahead. He drew up sharp at the bottom of the steps, unprepared for the sight before him.
Grunting quietly with the effort, Kate drug something large and light-colored across the Turkish rugs on the floor of the salon. Mouth slightly agape, he stood watching as her slow progression led her past him and beyond, out onto the main deck.
“What the bloody hell is that?”
Straightening, she swiped back several strands of hair, blotting the sweat from the side of her face.
“It’s your mattress,” she explained a little breathlessly, gesturing with one hand. “Can’t you tell?” Not waiting for an answer, she continued. “When was the last time you aired this thing out?”
Pursing his lips, he frowned, befuddled by both the question and the concept. Seeing his confusions, she attempted to explain.
“You know, bring it outside? Lay it in the sun, freshen it?”
“I’ll have you know, madam, that is my bed you’re dragging about!” he pointed out hotly. “You didn’t seem to mind it so much these last few nights.”
“I appreciated it very much, and, if you’ll recall,” she added carefully, “I offered to go sleep somewhere else and you refused.” She paused, scrutinizing the bedding. “I mean, no offense, but if I’m going to have to sleep on it, it’s going to have to be aired out.”
“No one else has ever complained about it!” In that split moment, he grimaced, realizing that might not necessarily have been the right thing to say. “I mean, the few times there might have been…someone who…” He felt her eyes on him and squirmed uncomfortably under her gaze. “Am I that distasteful to you?” he demanded, hoping to change the subject.
“No, it’s not you,” she replied, stooping back to her work, each word squeezed out with a grunt of effort. “It’s just that I can’t sleep in something that is beginning to smell like some old musty cellar.”
“Are you saying I smell?”
“No,” she said patiently, “I’m saying the mattress smells.”
“Where exactly do you plan on taking it?” As his agitation increased, his arms flapped faster, as he paralleled her progress across the deck.
“Just over there to the hold grate,” she huffed, pulling. “It will get good air from above and below, over there. You could help, you know.”
“This is a ship, not some boarding house.”
Stopping, she braced one hand to her back as she straightened, rolling her eyes impatiently. “It’s only a mattress, for heaven’s sake! And I’m not throwing it overboard, I’m just trying clean up a little.”
Stricken speechless, his hands spiraled up into the air, seeking some form of satisfaction from anywhere. Exploding with a burst of frustrated air, he turned on his heel and stomped into the cabin, muttering several colorful oaths under his breath.
Somewhat later the same day, he made to enter the Great Cabin, only to find the doors shut. Grabbing the handle, he discovered it was locked. Puzzled, he jerked at the handle several times, thinking possibly it was stuck. Grumbling, he slammed the door several times with the flat of his hand.
“Kate!” He shouted, jostling the handle sharply. “Kate!”
Cocking his ear to the crack, he could hear sounds, breathy and agitated. The sound stopped, and then resumed, seeming even more restive, maybe even struggling.
“Kate!” he yelled, pounding the door harder. “What the hell is going on in there? Dammit woman, answer!” His gravelly voice ripped the air.
“What is it?”
Jack pivoted on his heel to find Gibbs hovering over his shoulder, his face clouded with concern.
“I don’t know, Gibbs. The door is locked and it sounds like….damn! Someone’s in there with her!”
He was already down the companionway, racing down the gun deck. Bowling over crewmen who may linger in his way, he tore past the galley and then up the galley companionway, two steps at a time.
Skidding to a halt at the top step, he drew his pistol, listening. The noises were louder now, coming from the sleeping quarters: panting and grunting, interspersed with heavy breathing. Cautiously, he crept forward, jerked back the curtain and aimed.
His first view was of her rear, waggling repeatedly. Looking closer, he could see she was on her hands and knees, in only her shift, huffing and puffing with the effort of her movement.
“What in bloody blazes are you doing?” Realizing he was still aiming his pistol at her, he dropped it to his side.
She started violently, yelping, as she twisted around to look.
“You scared the living daylights out of me!” she exclaimed, pressing one hand to her chest. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I was near pounding down the bloody door; you didn’t hear that, either?”
“No,” she replied simply, knocking back a fall of hair from her face with the back of her wrist. “I must have been too busy.”
Without further comment, she went back to her work, her bottom resuming its actions. His eyes followed the motion of it, round and round, until he finally caught himself. Tearing his gaze away, he made to take a step.
“Don’t come in here!” she demanded, waving sharply. “The floors are wet.”
“The floors are…?” His voice trailed off, his eyes flickering frantically around the room. “What the bloody hell are you doing!” he bellowed.
“Washing the floors,” she replied patiently over her shoulder. She stopped long enough to look at him past one hip. “When was the last time they had a good scrubbing, anyway?”
Rolling his eyes beseechingly around the cabin, he clenched his fist, ramming his pistol back into his belt.
“I came in here thinking you were being accosted or worse and it turns out you’re washing floors?”
“What would make you think a silly thing like that?”
“Because the doors were locked and I could hear…noises!” he sputtered.
“And so you came racing in here, thinking you needed to protect me?” She laughed, tipping her head. “That’s sweet.”
“Sweet is not exactly what I’m feeling, nor thinking, at this very moment, madam. Why did you have the doors locked?”
She sat back on her rear, dropping the rag she had been using into a bucket at her elbow. “The floors were wet…”
“We spend a great deal of effort trying to keep these floors dry,” he interjected, between his teeth.
“Anyway,” she went on, shooting him a stare, “they were wet and I didn’t want someone, like you, come racing in here and slip and fall. Besides,” she added, tugging at the neck of her shift. “I’m not exactly dressed for company.”
Hesitating, he saw her point. Wet, either from sweat or water, the shift was barely a thin veil over her body, clinging especially closely at her hips and chest.
“Yes, I see your point,” he muttered, momentarily chastened.
A loud banging at the door interrupted them, followed by Gibbs’ deep voice calling. “Cap’n? Cap’n?”
“We’re fine, Mr. Gibbs,” Jack called over his shoulder, not bothering to mask his irritation.
“Is everything all right!”
“Everything is fine, Mr. Gibbs,” Jack replied, exhaling heavily. “How much longer?” he demanded, narrowing one eye.
“Just a few more minutes,” she said lightly. “I’m all the way back to this corner.” She stopped, frowning. “Do you have any idea what this might be back here? It’s all sticky.”
“No idea,” he muttered, walking away. Shaking his head in unfathomable dismay, shoulders sagging, he made his way across his cabin. “I have not the slightest, nor even foggiest idea.” He swore under his breath as he left. “Bloody woman!”
As the nights passed, Kate became more comfortable, more confident in Jack's intentions. Oddly, he was the consummate gentleman, excusing himself at the right moments, allowing her the privacy she might wish, announcing himself in some surreptitious fashion as he returned. She had no idea where he was sleeping most nights. One night, she did hear a noise and, creeping around the curtain, found him face down on the table asleep, his charts for a pillow. She found the innocence on his face as he slept charming, and was smiling to herself when he pulled one eye open. Head still resting on the table, he peered at her.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly, his voice thickened with sleep.
“Yes,” she answered, a little embarrassed. “I thought I heard something, and came out to see.”
“Don't worry, luv,” he said, dreamily. His eyes rolled half-closed as a smile tugged one corner of his mouth. “Sleep well; you'll not be disturbed on this ship.”
The time did finally come when she began to feel an imposition. As it became more apparent she was not to be let off the ship, the more she felt it necessary to make better arrangements.
“Let me go somewhere else,” she insisted. “You can't keep going where ever it is you've been going. It's not right! You're the captain; you deserve your own bed.”
Jack dismissed her with a loose-wristed wave of his hand. “No worries, luv.”
“Why not let me move to one of the cabins below? I'm sure it will be fine. Believe me, I've slept rougher.”
After a persistence that bordered on badgering, he finally gave in, but only to the point of explaining himself.
“Up here is the captain's quarters, my place; I can keep you safe. Below, even with orders not to go near you, there would be no guarantees. You'll sleep here.” He turned on his heel, and strolled away.
The subject was closed.
Kate had to admit there was strong logic in his decision. He may be captain, but human nature—men’s nature—was what it was. She was very aware that she was the only woman on a ship full of men. True enough, the punishment for disregarding a direct order would be severe, but the damage would already be done. There would be no reversing an attack in the night.
She was flattered by his concern for her, and as far as she could perceive, was completely devoid of any ulterior motives. Flushing like a schoolgirl, she realized how long it had been since someone cared what happened to her. It was heart-warmingly gratifying; for the first time in nearly five years, she felt alive again. Finally, someone, somewhere, knew if she lived or died.
Only later, did it strike her how totally inappropriate it was for a single woman, alone, to be discussing such intimate details as sleeping arrangements with a total stranger, a pirate at that. In truth, she shouldn't have even been alone in the same room with a stranger, or any man. Thankfully, she had no need to care what anyone off the ship thought. There were merits in having no one; if there was no one to care, then there was no one to criticize.
It was so easy to be around Jack. From the beginning, there had never been the least hint of threat from him. Priding herself on being a fair judge of character and painstakingly aware of men’s intentions, she found herself categorically trusting him. In spite of his outlandish trappings, quirky actions and rakish talk, she often had to remind herself of what he was. And with that knowledge, she reprimanded herself just as often for letting down her guard. Deceit and deception would be his bread and butter; this all could be one elaborate ruse.
At least, that is what she kept telling herself. The counterpoint to that argument was something she felt rather than knew. She was sure it was his eyes. Deep and luminous, there was something lurking in the depths, a humanity afraid to show itself, hiding behind a curtain like a shy child. A few times, it seemed he was warily allowing her in, pulling back the cover a bare crack to see what truly lay inside. But just as quickly, he would turn away, closing the portal, denying any entry by anyone.
As days turned into weeks, she consciously flirted with thoughts of something blooming between them. Slowly, however, a cold realization grew that he would never have any inclinations toward her. There were no overtures, not even the vaguest or slightest insinuation; he showed no interest. It did not surprise her. He was devilishly charming, with a dazzling smile that he knew very well how to use. Beneath the heavily corded hair, bizarre trappings and kohl-darkened eyes, lay a very handsome man. Clearly, he could, and probably did, have his choice of women in the Caribbean, more likely the world; that he was not attracted to her came as no shock. Disappointed, yes, if she were honest with herself. She might be a widow, but she preferred to think she might still, at least, have a little allure left. She felt like a stone among the diamonds. His good looks, flashing smile and dancing eyes were not wasted. Her heart quickened every time he was near. But, since he had no interest—well, it certainly made things easier.
At night, the crew would gather among the crates, bags and barrels on deck. Some nights they would sing, a small array of instruments, hornpipes or mouth harps, being produced to play along. More often, they’d tell stories. Since no repertoire is endless, the same ones were repeated over and over, sometimes at the behest of the group, sometimes spontaneously, becoming more outrageous with each repetition. She noticed that the flamboyance and incredulity of the stories increased in direct proportion to the amount of grog consumed. Usually she tried to stay as far away from the group as possible, very aware her presence would hinder the atmosphere of the gathering. But, she did try to stay within earshot, so she could listen. The stories were enjoyable: ghosts, curses, monsters, demons, storms, rampages, lost loves, battles and legends.
She particularly enjoyed the grand adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow. Her first day aboard he had seemed quite crestfallen when she told him she never heard of him. Now she understood why. No one person could have ever done everything contained in the stories, but there was enough believability sprinkled in to make them entirely entertaining. Often, as she listened, she looked toward the quarterdeck and could make out his silhouette in the dark, strolling about the deck, the lights of the lamps glinting off his ornaments, or manning the helm, eyes joyfully lit as they locked straight ahead on the horizon. Clearly, he was a legend in these waters and the world
Lost in the daily routine, she found herself forgetting these men were pirates. One day, she noticed the shackles dangling below the wheel of the capstan and shuddered, visualizing the necessity of them, what it would be like to be in them: prisoner, hostage, victim. Just past the capstan sat a barrel filled with swords, cutlasses, cargo hooks, broad axes, gaffing hooks and harpoons, along with several other implements the use of which she had no idea, stark testimonials to the brutality of these men's lives.
Sharper reminders were the days they did their “bit o' pirating”, as Jack called it. Stalking like a large black cat, the Pearl would pull stealthily into small bays and harbors, often under the cover of dark, her lamps doused. Weapons distributed and longboats away, the landing party would be sent, soon to return with their arms bulging with plunder. By morning they would be gone, a figment of the night. At one point, the Pearl confronted a Portuguese merchant. Cowing at the sight of the black flag looming on their stern, the crew stood lined at the rail, hands up in surrender before the Pearl was able to luff up.
Every corner of the world was represented in the crew, their variety sanded away by sun, wind and weather. As different as each one may be, they all had some common denominators: sun faded and sun tanned. If she needed any reminding of who they were, all she had to do was find their captain. He was an instant reminder, the personification of a pirate.
One gloriously clear and breezy mid-morning, two of the crewmen cautiously approached Kate as she stood at the scuttlebutt, taking a drink. Even though the barrel was filled with rainwater, it still took on an aftertaste of wood gone wet far too long, but it was still the freshest water on the ship. She dabbed her mouth with the back of her hand as the two stepped forward.
Doffing their caps, the two bobbed a bow.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Mister,” one began. “Might we have a word?”
He was thin, almost gaunt, with a frizzle of gray hair which showed evidence of once being red. The other was younger, broader and squarer, with a heavy shock of blond hair laced tightly back. What struck her was their accents; they were Scots. She had heard filtered wisps of their voices on deck; the rolled “r’s” and the clipped consonants had haunted her.
“You’re Highlanders, aren’t you?” she asked, politely but cautious.
“Aye, sir. Cameron, by name, but Grant, by birth. He's Hughes,” he added, indicating his partner. He stammered, painfully nervous. “Yer man was a Mackenzie, wasn’t he?”
Her stomach clenched; she had dreaded recognition in England. Here on the Black Pearl she thought she would be safe.
“Yes, he was,” she replied, reluctantly.
“Aye, we thought so.” His face broke into a wide smile, awash with relief. “We dinna wish to be forward, mum, but we kent ye as soon as we laid eyes on ye.” He hesitated. “May I shake yer hand, Mistress Mackenzie?” He seized her hand and started pumping vigorously. “He was a fine man, mum. I just want to honor his memory.” His eyes bulged as he realized what he was doing, and jerked his hand away. “I’m sorry, beggin’ yer pardon, Mistress Mackenzie.”
Twisting his hat unmercifully in his hands, he exchanged glances with his companion.
“We served under him, ye ken, at Stirling, and then after. He was a fine man, mum, the finest we’d ever seen; best officer in the whole blessed affair, courage of a lion.”
“Yes, he was,” she agreed quietly, feeling the eyes of several of the crew on her, wary and watching.
“And when I saw ye stitchin’ yon Chin, I said to meself: ‘That’s Red Brian’s woman!’” His face split into a smile again, studded by a total of four teeth. Then he suddenly waxed very solemn. “We just wanted to say as how proud we wuz to serve under yer man, mum.”
“Yes, he was good, wasn’t he?” she nodded, feeling strained, wishing there was a way to quiet them.
“Not just good, mum! We’d follow him to Hell and back; a natural leader he was. I was sorry about Culloden, mum, what with him so horrible injured.” He shook his head in awed dismay. “T’was the damndest thing I ever saw, beggin’ yer pardon, mum!”
“No, no, it’s all right!” She was cringing, dying inside. Would he ever stop?
“And I was right sorry to hear he’d been captured; bloody sassenachs!”
More of the crew was watching now, gathering, a few of them inching closer, either concerned the two were annoying her, or more probably, curious.
“Well, we just wanted to honor his memory, Mistress Mackenzie.” They bobbed another bow in unison. “G’ day.”
She sagged against the rail in relief as they walked away. She didn’t look up; she didn’t need to. She could feel eyes boring into her back. No secrets on a ship. Well, that was as public an announcement as could possibly be made. Might as well have stood on a crate and shouted.
Jack touched her arm and she jumped, yelping loudly.
“Sorry,” he said stepping back, wavering a wary hand. “I didn’t mean to...”
“No, no!” she gasped, holding up her own hand toward him, the other pressing to her abdomen. She closed her eyes in an attempt to regain herself. “I just didn’t hear you.”
“Did those crewmen…”
“No, no!” she exclaimed and, ducking her head, scurried off.