This is a story my grandfather’s grandfather told him, and my grandfather told me, and though I can’t vouch for the truth of it, my grandfather believed it and that’s good enough for me. Every year round about Halloween, I get to thinking of it, and remembering Crabcake Charlie….
In Which We Meet Charlie
Old Crabcake Charlie was a sun-wrinkled man, with a face like a shriveled raisin. His jaws bristled with stubby white whiskers (for he only shaved on Sundays) and his eyes danced blue as chicory by the roadside. If you listened to his stories you’d think, like most folks did, that Crabcake had spent his life on the sea. But the unvarnished truth was that in his younger years Charlie had been a farmer. For years he’d followed the plow and tended stock, but all that time he was dreaming of the sea. And when his wife died he sold his farm, down to the last chicken, and headed towards the ocean.
There he lived just the way he’d always wanted. Mornings he’d stand at the door of his cottage listening to the cries of the gulls, the swish of the surf, and then stride off down the beach for an early walk.
Come afternoon, he’d fish or swim or—on rainy days—clean his cottage. When he had everything neat and tidy, he’d sit in his rocker, light his pipe, and pick up a book. He liked to read about pirates—Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Captain Kidd, and most especially Haldan the Wanderer, who had plundered the local coast many years before.
Evenings, though, were Crabcake’s favorite time. After his supper (crab cakes, more often than not) he’d put on his sailor cap, button his jacket and stroll down around Eagle Point to the harbor. He’d join his friends at a table in the Jolly Buccaneer, where evenings passed lively with laughter and talk and good company.
Round about nine or so, someone was sure to cry, “Tell us a story, Crabcake!” and he was happy to oblige. As the night wore on, his tales would grow taller and wider, and if he stretched the truth a little, letting folks think he was a seaman, why, what was the harm?
When at last the fire grew low, and one by one the locals left the inn, Crabcake would stride back up the beach, his feet sinking into the sand, his head bent against the wind, while offshore a lonely whistle sounded, and up the coast the eye of the lighthouse blinked against the black sky.
That’s how it was for Charlie, year after sea-blown year, till late one October afternoon, a Halloween afternoon, when summer decided to make a brief return visit.
Charlie Makes a Fateful Decision
The bay was almost flat that day, and Crabcake was fishing late, anchored in a sheltered cove not too far from his cottage.
He was puffing his pipe and watching the sea birds dip low over the smooth water when a hard yank on his line almost pulled the pole from his hands. “By dinghies,” he exclaimed. “She’s a big one!” He began pulling, but he didn’t feel the jerks and thrashing of a fighting fish. “Shucks,” he said, “whatever I’ve got, it ain’t alive.” But just then the head of a sea turtle rose from the water. “Blimey!” he exclaimed. The muscles in his arms bulged and his face grew red as he struggled, but finally, with a last mighty effort he hauled the turtle up over the side and onto the floor of the boat. “Will you look at the size of him!” Charlie said. “I’m lucky my line didn’t break.”
The turtle raised its head at the sound of Charlie’s voice. Thinking thoughts of turtle soup, Crabcake bent over to retrieve his hook. Then he saw that the hook was caught on a heavy loop of metal wedged between neck and shell. “You didn’t even take my bait!” he murmured, “‘Twas just your bad luck to swim too close and get hooked accidental-like. And this isn’t your first brush with death, I figure, not from the look of that scar on your face.”
He wiggled the hook, and with his final tug, out it came along with its attachment. He whistled in amazement. In his hand he held a barnacle-encrusted key. It was large, nearly eight inches long, and heavy. The end of the shaft was fashioned into a twisted circle inset with the letter H. Crabcake used his thumbnail to scrape off a barnacle. The metal of the key glowed richly in the light of the setting sun. “Can it be real brass, or even gold?” Charlie thought in wonder. “What a find that would be!”
Turning the key over and over in his hand, he happened to look the turtle in the eye, and something about its steady, unblinking stare made him think. “Wonder how old you are?” he mused aloud. “I’ve heard tell turtles can live pretty long. Bet you’ve seen a lot. Maybe even pirates.”
Laying down the key, he wiped his palm on his pants leg and picked up his pipe. He fumbled in his pocket for a kitchen match, pulled one out, and relit the pipe. As he sat there puffing away the sun sank lower, and a line of clouds was rimmed in rose and gold. “’Red at night, sailor’s delight,’” he murmured. “Pretty day tomorrow.” He looked down again at the turtle, which hadn’t moved but waited stolidly for whatever might happen. He made up his mind. He grasped the shell in both hands and with a mighty heave he lifted the turtle up and over the side. It hit the water with a splash. The boat rocked wildly. By the time the rocking ceased, the turtle had disappeared.
Crabcake judged it was time to head back to shore. But as he dipped his oars into the water, a distance over to the east he saw the turtle poke its head out of the waves. It looked at him for a long minute, then down it dived, and was gone.
Crabcake continued toward shore, rowing briskly now, for the sun was almost set. Gaining his own beach, he shipped his oars and jumped into the shallow water. He dragged the boat up the strand, and when it was safely beached he reached into the boat and picked up the key. Just as he slipped it into his pocket, the sun dropped below the horizon. Down from the darkened sky blew a sudden wind that chilled the back of his neck. A sea gull called harshly, and Crabcake shivered.
There’s those who say that right then he should have read the signs aright and throwed the key back in the water, but Crabcake wasn’t the superstitious sort, so he just pulled his jacket tighter and tramped up the sand to his cottage and supper.
Evening at the Jolly Buccaneer
Later, when he set out with the key (newly polished and barnacle-free) in his pocket, Crabcake had no suspicion that this Halloween night would be different from any other. But according to my grandfather’s grandfather, some who were at the Jolly Buccaneer that evening swore later that they’d seen trouble coming and tried to warn Crabcake. That’s as may be. But the fact of the matter is, old Crabcake was in rare form. Story after story slipped off his tongue just as easy as you please, all of them about pirates and such.
It was getting along toward closing time when he slowly reached into his pocket and brought out the key. He laid it with a clank on the broad, black table where it shone in the lantern light. “See that H in the loop?” Crabcake asked. “That stands for Haldan, and this here is the key to his treasure chest, if ever I can find it.”
Someone gasped, and someone whistled softly, and the local skeptic protested, “Wait a minute. Haldan went down with Hildred about a hundred years ago.”
“That’s right,” Crabcake agreed serenely. “Halloween night, ninety-nine years ago. A sudden storm came up sometime around midnight. It must’ve caught the Hildred’s crew unprepared, for she slammed into the rocks off Eagle Point. The books say she went down with all hands aboard.”
“Are you sayin’ the books are wrong?” the Skeptic asked. “How would you know? And if that’s the key to the Wanderer’s treasure chest, how did you come by it?”
Charlie took a slow, deliberate minute attempting to relight his pipe. Then he laid it down and eyed his questioner sternly, “How I got it ain’t as important as how it was lost,” he said. “But seein’ it’s you who’s askin’, Jack, if you’ll stand me to a pint I’ll tell you how this key came to be loose in the bay, stead of buried on the ocean floor among the timbers and bones of the Hildred and her crew.”
The Skeptic nodded to the proprietor who brought over a pint and set it before Charlie. Crabcake took a swig, wiped his lips, then picked his pipe back up and pulled out another match. A wind had begun blowing in from the ocean, and the lamps in the tavern were burning low. Finally the pipe was lit to Charlie’s satisfaction, and he began to speak. His voice grew deep and mysterious.
With their eyes fixed upon Charlie, his listeners settled more comfortably on the benches lining the table, so only the proprietor noticed a tall stranger wrapped in a black cloak slip quietly into the tavern and settle himself at a small table in the shadows of the far wall. The newcomer motioned to the proprietor, and when he received his pint, he reached into a small purse and pulled out a bright coin. He put it silently in the proprietor’s outstretched hand.
The proprietor viewed the coin on his palm with a mixture of surprise and suspicion. He opened his mouth as if to ask a question, but something in the stranger’s mien made him think better of it. He turned and retreated behind the bar, but he put the coin to his mouth and bit down hard on it before dropping it into the till.
Meanwhile Crabcake, mixing snippets of stories he’d read, plus bright imaginings of his own, was spinning a tale of gold and pirate greed, of thieving and treachery—a story of Haldan, his treasure, and the last, fateful night of the Hildred.
Crabcake Spins a Tale
“There’s nobody ain’t heard of Haldan,” Crabcake began. “It was one of his own men nicknamed him The Wanderer, because he said Haldan never had a plan anyone could count on. He’d just let the Hildred head wherever the winds wanted to take her, and nine times out of ten that way he’d come upon an unlucky ship ripe for the taking.
“No one knows for sure how many ships he plundered, but rumor was he had a treasure chest full of gold and jewels locked in his cabin. His crew was mostly made up of bullies and braggarts, not to mention thieves and thugs, robbers and ruffians.” Charlie took a minute here to admire his way with words, but seeing an impatient glint in the Skeptic’s eye, he hastily continued.
“They were a dangerous group, that crew, but they stuck with Haldan because he’d promised them that his plan was to retire and become a gentleman farmer one day. On that day he’d divvy up his treasure among them all—each man getting a share based on how long he’d served. That was cunning of him. Cut down on rivalry among the men, you see, because there wasn’t no changing or arguing about when a man had first come on board.
“So for a pirate ship, the Hildred was thought to be lucky, and if she lost a man in a raid or some such, there was always someone at the next port eager to take his place. And this way Haldan’s luck held out over the years, held out until that last fateful trip.
“The trip’d begun badly. Haldan had taken on three new men, and one of them, no more than thirteen, stumbled going aboard and accidentally put his left foot on deck first. Thinking quick, the man behind pushed the youth into the waves, so the bad luck wouldn’t take, but it made the men uneasy, just the same. And that wasn’t all. Other unlucky things kept happenin’—one day a broken mirror, the next day, a cormorant flying across the sun, the next, a sighting of sharks following the ship’s wake.
“Things came to a head on Halloween day. For months the Hildred had been prowling the bay, but not a likely target had showed. Now she was becalmed a mile or so off-shore, not too far from here. Her sails were hanging useless, and her black flag drooped like the tongue of a dog on a hot summer day. She’d sat there for weeks through days and nights that were beastly hot, more like August than October. Tempers were short, and so were rations. Every man was wonderin’, but no one was brave enough to ask out loud, was Haldan’s luck running out?”
“Now, Jack,” Charlie said suddenly to the Skeptic, who had begun to fidget on the bench, “pay attention, cause this part’s crucial. Everyone knows about Haldan, like I said, but do you, or does anyone else here, know a thing about his first mate? Even know his name?” Charlie let his gaze travel from one fire-lit face to another.
“I thought not,” he said with satisfaction. “Scarface was his name, and I’ll warrant there wasn’t another pirate like him up or down the coast.” All eyes were on Charlie, now, so not even the proprietor noticed how the stranger in the corner started at the name Scarface, sloshing a good portion of his pint in a spreading puddle on the table top.
“How Scarface come to be one of the crew, and first mate at that, is a story in itself, and I won’t go into that here. But there are two things you need to know about him. First, he was a decent man; not many first mates were in those day. Second, he was a Jamaican.”
Ignoring the starts of surprise here, Charlie continued, “I warrant in the early days there might have been one or two of the crew say they weren’t going to take orders from a Black man, no matter what. But they soon changed their tune. Scarface was strict, but fair, and if he had a man flogged, everyone on board knew the punishment was deserved. No one ever heard of him getting drunk, or stabbing a man in the back, or cheating at cards. He kept to himself, said little, saved his money. And it didn’t hurt none that when the Hildred docked in southern ports, the crew would see islanders nod respectfully and move aside to make way for him. Islanders didn’t call him Scarface, though—they had another name for him, Obeahman.”
Like all good story-tellers, Crabcake knew his audience, and he sensed it was time for a small recess. He picked up his empty glass and stared at it in mock surprise. “Shucks,” he said to the proprietor, “Story-tellin’s dry work. Fetch me another, will you?”
“I ain’t payin’ for this one,” Jack growled.
“Course you ain’t, I’m not asking you to,” Crabcake said with a grin. “Anyone else need something before I get on to the part about the key?” At this, some of his listeners availed themselves of the chance to stretch their legs or put in another order.
The proprietor approached the stranger’s table to wipe up the spill. He was going to offer another pint, but he saw that the first had been hardly touched.
“He’s quite a raconteur, our Charlie, ain’t he?” he asked. The stranger shrugged, seeming neither impressed nor puzzled by the fancy word the proprietor was proud of using.
“He tells a good story,” was all he said.
Seeing that the other didn’t seem inclined to conversation, the proprietor contented himself with offering another pint whenever it was wanted, and hurried away.
By this time most of the others were back at the table, their faces turned eagerly towards Charlie. “Let’s see now, where was I?” Crabcake said, “Oh, yes….Halloween day.”
Halloween on the Hildred
“All that hot, miserable month Scarface had been watching and listening. He’d noted how the men were growing short-tempered and sullen, the way seamen’ll do when they haven’t enough work to keep their hands and minds busy. And he could sense anger and frustration building up like a layer of gunpowder on the Hildred’s deck.”
Here Crabcake paused to take another swallow, and wipe the foam from his lips, while his motionless listeners, even the Skeptic, waited silently for him to continue.
“Well, like I said, October 31st begun hot and muggy, same as October’s first thirty. The morning sky was an angry red, and the crew begun thinking maybe a storm would break the heat. But the hours passed with no signs of relief, and the men went about their work listless and irritable.
“Scarface knew something was bound to happen, and something did, but sooner than he expected. He was leanin’ against the rail, staring out at the empty waters when a strong arm suddenly encircled his neck, and he felt the cold blade of a knife against his throat. “Now, sir, you’re going to listen to us,” said a voice.
“Scarface knowed better than to show fear. “I’m listening, Irish,” he said, recognizing the voice right away. “But I could heed you better without a knife blade at my throat.”
“The pirate gave a low laugh, released Scarface, and shoved him aside. “That was just so you’d know we’re serious,” the pirate called Irish said. When Scarface turned around, the whole crew was standing together, facing him. Irish wasted no words laying out the crew’s plan. Scarface was to knock on the cabin door when Haldan was at supper inside. Soon as Haldan unlocked the door to let Scarface in, Irish would follow along and listen while Scarface presented Haldan with the crew’s demands.
“What they wanted was simple enough. They wanted the treasure divvied up that very night, and as soon as they got a breeze to start the ship on its way again, they planned to make for the nearest port. There, those who wanted to could leave the Hildred for good, and Haldan could either find himself men enough for a new crew or take up gentleman farming then and there.
“Well sir, as pirate demands go, that one wasn’t too unreasonable. But Haldan, ‘acourse, didn’t see it that way. He got it in his head that Scarface had put the crew up to this, so when the two of them (followed by Irish with his knife at the ready) went out to face the men, though Scarface didn’t know it, Haldan was his enemy.
“Now just what went on in those next few hours, just how Haldan did it, no one knows for sure, but somehow, when the storm finally broke, the men were taking orders from Haldan again. What had happened to Scarface? I wish I knew. The books don’t say. But soon as I found this key, I knew one thing for certain—some way or another, Scarface ended up in the waves, and when he did, he still had the key with him. Just how he went overboard, whether he jumped or was thrown, I ain’t sure. But one thing’s certain—he was alive when the Hildred hit the rocks, when she broke apart and went down. And when he saw the ship with all its wealth begin to sink below the waves, Scarface cursed Haldan and the crew, swearing they would never rest until he got his share of the treasure.
That’s why on Halloween night no one goes out on Eagle Point. Old-timers say if you stand on the breakwater there, you can hear the waves whispering, “My share, my share, my share.”
Crabcake’s voice had dropped almost to a whisper as he spoke the last words, and for a few minutes not a soul was willing to break the ghostly silence.
Then, the Skeptic stood. He made a clumsy bow to Charlie and said, “Got to hand it to you, Charlie. That was a capital story. Mind you, I’m still not convinced that’s The Wanderer’s key, but if it is, and if I was you, I’d throw it back in the bay where it belongs.”
The proprietor came over to clear the table then, and the regulars began to think about leaving. One or two ordered a last pint, and drank it while they argued about how Haldan managed to gain command again, whether his plan was to set Scarface adrift in a small boat without oars or provisions, or throw him, bound, overboard either to drown or make a meal for sharks. In the general stir, not even the proprietor noticed the stranger slipping quietly out the door. Soon almost everyone was heading for home, and more than one was looking back over his shoulder now and then, glad to have company on his way.
An Encounter on the Shore
Crabcake himself had the farthest to go, so soon he was alone on the beach. The wind was sighing and the waves were rolling in, and Crabcake, deep in thought, plodded along with his head down. You can imagine the fright it gave him, then, when a raspy voice behind him said, “That was a fearsome yarn you told back there.”
Crabcake spun around and found himself looking up into the face of a stranger. The stranger was a head taller than Crabcake, with black hair hanging to his shoulders, a short, pointed beard, and rings of gold in his ears. Charlie was sure he’d never seen the man before, but still, something about him was familiar.
“Well, sir, you have the advantage of me,” Crabcake answered politely. “Was you back at the Buccaneer? I’m afraid I didn’t notice you.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” the other answered with a low chuckle that struck Crabcake as somehow alarming, “or you wouldn’t have been so bold as to show my key.”
“Your key?” Crabcake stepped back a pace. “Who are you, then?”
“Haldan, called The Wanderer, at your service,” said the stranger, with a mocking smile and bow.
“You’re the Wanderer?” asked Crabcake. “No! Haldan drowned long ago, in a storm off Eagle Point.”
“That’s right,” said the other. “Halloween night, ninety-nine years ago. Curse Scarface for picking that night, of all nights, to set my men against me. He claimed they all wanted their share of our booty, and they wanted it that night. Said they were tired of waiting for me to divide the spoils. Just like you told back there at the tavern, though how you could know I haven’t figured out.”
“But…” Charlie began. Haldan ignored him and went on, as if—Charlie thought—he were seeing and hearing events just as they happened.
“Well, I knew that crew,” and here Haldan sniffed disdainfully. “I knew them for a scurvy, thieving lot. The only one worth thinking twice about was the Black, and now he had turned against me too. It would have been the end of me to give in. Maybe they wouldn’t have killed me, but I’d never regain their respect or loyalty. So I had to outsmart them. I handed the key to the treasure chest to Scarface, but I told them all I’d keep charge of the chest till they’d decided everyone’s fair share. Then I opened a storage bin in the galley and told them to help themselves to grog while they figured it out.
“They cheered me then, I can tell you. I went back into my cabin, locked myself in and left them to it. I knew Scarface couldn’t control them, that they’d be drunk by ten, fighting by midnight, and by morning, with any luck, Scarface and any other trouble-makers would be dead or overboard.
“And that’s what would have happened… except for the storm. When it suddenly hit, and they banged on my cabin door for help, they were in no shape to cope. They’d turned on Scarface, of course, and had him bound to the mast. I planned to deal with him later. I started giving orders, set the men to work, but over the boom of the waves, the wail of the wind, I kept hearing Scarface chanting some mumbo-jumbo. I turned the wheel over to Irish, and went over to where Scarface was tied.
““Your Obeah won’t help you now,” I told him. I figured it was time for the crew to see I wasn’t afraid of Scarface or his charms and spells. As far as I was concerned an Obeah man was only a native who was just a little smarter than the others, so a little more able to fool them.
“I’ll say this for him, Scarface didn’t act disturbed or afraid. Bloody and bare-chested as he was, he just looked at me for a minute, and then said plainly and slowly. “One night a year is all you have. One night a year, and neither you nor the crew will be able to rest until you give the Obeah man his due.”
“I’d had enough. I went back, took over the wheel again and sent Irish over to silence him, but before that ox could get there, somehow Scarface managed to slip out of his bonds and dive overboard. Irish lunged for him and almost went into the water himself. By the time I got to the rail, Scarface had disappeared. He must have drowned right away. The strongest swimmer couldn’t have survived in those angry waves. Even the sea turtle I saw swimming towards the rocks was having trouble making headway.
“Minutes later the storm reached its height, and our best efforts couldn’t save us. A giant wave pushed us into the rocks, and my good ship the Hildred went down, taking us all with it. Taking my treasure too, down to the ocean floor.
“His curse has followed me ever since. A lost key, a lost chest, miles of ocean, and only one night a year to search! Year after weary year the crew and I have sought them. I’d be looking still, if your tongue hadn’t run away with you tonight.”
“But…but that was make-believe!” Crabcake protested. “I was making it all up! And this key, it could be any old key. Why should you think it’s yours? Here, look!” He pulled the key from his jacket and held it out.
“‘Tis my key. It has my sign,” said the stranger, taking the key and running his finger over the H. “And now you will take me to my treasure!”
“To your treasure?” asked Charlie in astonishment. “How could I have that? You just said it must be on the ocean floor somewhere.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” demanded Haldan. “I heard you tell your friends about that last night on the Hildred. I heard you tell them that this was the key to my chest. How would you know that, if you hadn’t found the chest and tried the key in the lock?”
His hand shot out and grabbed Charlie by the neck. He pursed his lips and whistled. As he did, the wind dropped, and Crabcake could hear a quiet splash of oars. A small boat with three oarsmen approached. The cold hand of Haldan gripped the back of his neck, and he was propelled through the surf and into the boat. Haldan settled in the stern, gave the order, and the boat headed back out to sea. Crabcake sat in the bow, trembling with cold and fear as he watched the shoreline recede.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked. The figure in the stern pointed. Crabcake looked over his shoulder. He shuddered. Ahead of them loomed a frigate of the kind he’d read about, the kind that had figured in so many of his stories. As the moon slipped out from behind a cloud, its light fell on the prow, and he read there the name Hildred.
Commanded to Do the Impossible
The little boat came alongside the frigate, and Haldan motioned for Crabcake to start up the ladder. Hand over hand Crabcake climbed. The rungs were slippery, and the ladder swayed as the ship rocked in the water. Waves flung up spray that stung Crabcake’s legs and back. Reaching the top of the ladder and clambering aboard, he found himself surrounded by a silent pirate crew.
The pirates moved back as Haldan came aboard. With icy fingers Haldan forced Crabcake across the deck, down a flight of wooden steps, and along a musty-smelling hallway that stretched away into blackness. The hall ceiling was so low Crabcake had to bend his head as he walked. Here and there sea water oozed up through the cracks between the floorboards, and a clamminess in the air caused him to pull his jacket closer. At the end of the corridor, Haldan opened a door and shoved Crabcake into a small room lit dimly by lantern light and stinking of bilge water and whale oil.
As soon as the door was shut, Haldan gave Crabcake a measuring look. “The night goes fast,” he observed. “You have not much time. Before daybreak you must lead me to my treasure, or you will wait with us for next year’s Halloween.”
“Wait? Wait where?” asked Crabcake.
“Beyond land and sea. Where the night is filled with sounds of misery and terror, where fog, foul and chill, shrouds all, where there is neither rest nor peace.”
“But I don’t know where the treasure is!”Crabcake wailed.
“Don’t you? That is too bad, indeed. Perhaps you need some time to think. Some time alone.” Smiling coldly at Crabcake, Haldan walked across the room and opened the door. He shut it behind him, and Crabcake heard the scrape of a bolt sliding into place.
Crabcake’s head drooped. He sighed and shook his head. Then he tightened his lips, looked up, and spoke out loud. “Well, Charlie, my boy, Mother always told you your tongue would lead you to trouble. What are you going to do now?” Though his words were light, he knew his predicament was serious. “If Haldan plans to hold me till I give him a chest I don’t have, he’ll have to hold me till Doomsday,” Crabcake thought. “I wish I’d let that turtle keep his blasted key. I wish I’d never made up the story. How could I know it would turn out to be true?”
Hours passed. Crabcake spent some time trying to force the door, but it was thick and strong, and the lock showed no sign of giving, even when he threw his weight against it. To add to his misery the oil in the lamp had not been refilled and there came a moment when the light flickered and went out. Crabcake sat alone, while all around him the dark whispered and rustled with creaks and groans he couldn’t interpret. Suddenly something brushed against his leg, and he jumped up, knocking over his chair with a clatter that jarred the darkness.
Strangely, the terror he felt at that minute seemed to steady him. Nothing, he thought, could be worse than that touch of the unknown. He gathered the scraps of his courage and wrapped himself in them. “I’m not giving up,” he told himself. “Storyin’ got me into this predicament, and if I keep my wits about me, storyin’ may get me out.”
As he thought this, Crabcake felt his heart, which had been jumping and thumping, slow to a steady beat. He righted the chair and sat quietly in the dark, thinking, thinking…. How long he sat there, he didn’t know, but eventually he heard the sound of footsteps, the rasp of the bolt, and the door swung open.
Charlie and the Pirates
Haldan stood in the doorway. “Well?” he demanded. “Are you ready to tell me where my treasure is?”
“I’ll tell,” said Crabcake, with what he hoped sounded like surrender in his voice. “I buried it. I buried it under a rock at the north end of the harbor.”
“Buried it? Why?” demanded Haldan Skeptically. “Why not just enjoy the treasure?”
“No sir!” said Charlie. “I knowed as soon as I would start showing that gold around, somebody’d rob me, for sure. Best to save it, I thought, spend a little at a time, not raise no suspicions. I know me a spot along the coast where no one ever goes, and that’s where I hid the chest.”
Crabcake held his breath as he finished speaking. Would Haldan believe him? Silence filled the small room.
At last Haldan spoke. “You will take me there,” he said. Jerking his head for Crabcake to follow, he led the way back down the low hallway and up the stairs. Crabcake felt his breathing ease when he was out in the night air with the open sky stretching above, but he didn’t much care for the way the crew looked at him. He stayed close to Haldan.
At the edge of the deck, Haldan motioned to Crabcake to start down the ladder. Now was the time! “You’d better make them believe you, Charlie my boy,” he told himself.
He turned his head to look back at Haldan. “You didn’t forget the map, did you?” he asked, loud enough for the other pirates to hear.
“Map?” Haldan sounded surprised, as well he might. “What map?”
“The one I gave you—the one that shows the—you know,” Charlie’s voice had just the right touch of impatience in it. He saw the crew move closer when they heard the word “map” and pretended to notice for the first time that they were listening. He lowered his voice. “Oh, I get it,” he whispered loudly to Haldan. “Two’s better than twenty when it comes to sharin’, ain’t it?”
He moved closer to the rail around the deck, but as he did so, a hand clamped down on his arm.
“What kind of map?” The pirate who asked fingered the knife in his belt. Crabcake tried not to look at it.
“Oh, just an old map I showed Haldan. Probably nothing to it,” he said.
“Liar! You showed me no map!” Haldan’s voice was loud and angry. A sullen mutter ran through the men. They shuffled and shifted and shouldered one another until a circle of them stood between Haldan and Charlie.
Crabcake pretended to be indignant himself. “Now see here,” he said. to Haldan, “If you don’t want to share with these fellows, that’s not my look-out. But don’t go calling me a liar. Next you’ll be saying you don’t have the key either.”
Haldan’s hand involuntarily moved towards his pocket. One of the crew uttered an oath and thrust his own hand roughly into Haldan’s pocket. He pulled out the key and held it triumphantly high.
The muttering grew louder. Now even the pirates next to Crabcake moved threateningly towards Haldan.
“Yes! That’s my key,” Haldan said challengingly. “How this villain got it, I don’t know. But I took it from him, and I’m making him show where he hid the treasure. There is no map, only what he knows. Now stand aside.”
Crabcake could see the crew hesitate. They didn’t trust Haldan, but they were used to following his orders. Now was Charlie’s last chance.
He shook his head mournfully. “I shoulda knowed better,” he said. “I shoulda left the map home when I went to the Buccaneer tonight. Now Haldan has the map and you all have the key and poor Charlie ain’t got nothing.”
“You gave me no map!” Haldan’s voice was high and desperate. The crew advanced on him, and as he backed away, he drew a gun from his waistcoat. It glittered in the moonlight, and the barrel waved threateningly. Now it pointed at the pirates, now at Crabcake. But the pirates were not deterred. A knife whizzed past Haldan’s ear, missing him by inches. He stumbled, and his gun fell to the deck. “Get him!” someone yelled. Other pirates took up the cry, and they surged forward.
The night air filled with shouts and oaths, sounds of scuffling, clang of steel on steel. Crabcake didn’t stay to watch. As soon as he found himself unguarded, he moved towards the ladder and started down. He was on the fifth rung, his head just at deck level when a lurch of the ship sent an object skittering across the deck toward him. There was a glint of gold, his hand shot out, and once more Crabcake held the key. He tucked it into his pocket and scrambled on down the ladder.
Jumping into the small boat, he untied the line and began to pull on the oars. He was yards away from the ship when a chorus of shouts told him his absence was discovered. “I’m too far,” he chuckled to himself. “By the time they get another boat launched, I’ll be long gone.”
But a thunderous roar rang through the darkness, a crash shook his small craft, and water came surging through the splintered wood where the pirate shot had hit. Crabcake felt the boat sinking beneath him. He cast a despairing glance at the faraway shore.
All the storytelling ability in the world couldn’t turn Crabcake into a long-distance swimmer, and he knew it. The water closed around him with a welcome warmth, but the sea was rough, and he was no longer a young man. He swam underwater as fast and as far as he could. Finally he surfaced, gasping for air. He looked frantically behind. To his surprise he saw no pursuing boat. “They think I’m drownded,” he decided with relief.
The need for speed was gone, but the distance to travel was great. One arm after another, stroke upon stroke, till Crabcake could do no more. He felt himself sinking lower in the water, lower, and lower. He closed his eyes and was composing his final prayers when—glory be!—he felt something solid, he grabbed hold, and was brought sputtering to the surface. By the light of the moon, he could see that he was lying upon a turtle’s back.
The turtle swam steadily towards shore. Crabcake didn’t have time to wonder how or why it had found him, he just held on. The turtle rose and fell with the waves, but Crabcake could feel it making headway. Suddenly it dipped sideways, sliding him off. One panicky minute, then he felt his feet touch sandy bottom, and he found himself standing waist deep in water, not fifty yards from his front door!
He was staggering forward when he felt a sharp tug at his pocket. He turned just in time to see the turtle surface, holding the key in its mouth. Crabcake and the turtle stared at each other. “I knew what he wanted, and I figured I owed him,” Charlie used to say. He reached out, took the key from the turtle’s mouth and tucked it into the hollow between head and shell, back where he had first seen it.
Now where the moonlight made a shimmering path on the water, the turtle paddled lazily. “Can a turtle wink?” Crabcake used to ask his listeners. “You may not think so, but this one sure did. He winked right at me and I knew he was saying we was all square now.”
Crabcake watched the turtle turn to swim away. He could see the scar on its face, see the strong, broad shell he had ridden to shore, the faint glitter of gold next to its head. He watched till it was nothing but a dot, then stayed for a minute more, staring into the night. Sure enough, far out on the bay he could see the Wanderer’s ghostly frigate sailing away from shore, out into open water.
“And, by dinghies,” Crabcake Charlie said to my grandfather’s grandfather, “that was the only time I ever watched a ship sail away without wishing I was on her.”
Here is one walloping tale. Smart, inventive, and surprising, Crabcake Charlie uses the art of story to illuminate the power of story. Readers will feel enchanted and enriched by this story’s end. They’ll want to sit on Charlie’s beach until the sun sets and beyond, just hoping for more of his wonderful tales, and especially for the turtle to return with the key.
—Kathi Appelt, 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge