They chained him to the aft railing as the sun beat down on his sandy, unwashed hair.
The sails above hung limp above, the only movement from crew and the ship itself as it listed, gently, port and aft, on this becalmed Wednesday, the fifth in a row.
The captain looked out over the young lad's former mates, chewing the gristle from his violently interrupted lunch repast. A hush fell over the ship, broken only by the clicks and rustles of the manacles, rubbing against each other as the boy tugged and pulled, wishing he'd picked another berth, like that fine galleon, all sparkling, pretty-like in the harbour. Her master had taken one look at his unkempt clothes and tousled, shoulder-length hair and had his coxswain escort him from the ship.
Now, here he was, no better off. The salt spray from the waves got in his eyes, the chains too short for him to rub at them, stinging, like the blows sure to follow from the first mates bull-whip. A supple and gleaming thing, always wrapped about the mate's waist, the handle smooth and caressed in absent-minded affection by the mean devil who wore it as his badge of power. The truth of the matter was, no one on the ship liked the mate much, his swagger and quick-fire temper, lashing out with touches of a leather forked tongue ensured fear and disdain. Without the men's strong respect for the captain, the mate would've been keel-hauled on a moonless night watch, the body only pulled from the salty embrace of the sea in the morn.
Another wet splash shook Jim from his reverie, he'd missed the first part of what the captain said. The men stood watching him, looking expectantly for a response.
"P-p-pardon Cap'n, I didn't hear," Jim stammered with all eyes on him.
"Now see Jim, that's just the problem we had last watch, now, ain't it?" Captain's gruff voice was quiet. "Those Spaniards came upon us in the dark, and nary a peep from you boy."
Walking through the crowd, men parting as he walked, flowing over them, waves over rocks, until he stood square in front of Jim, peering down at him over the glass of his pince-nez, the bottom of the gold frames rimed with salt and blood.
Jim didn't try to argue, certain as the sun rose, he'd never live through the day. He swallowed dryly, trying to clear the lump in his throat and rubbing his lips against each other to ease the chapped skin, tasting brine. The chains clinked again as he shifted from foot to foot.
"And what do you think we should do with 'im, men?" Captain called out louder so all the crew could hear.
Mutters passed among the crew, curses and whispers building, until one, courage built with plenty of nudging and elbows from his shipmates, shouted "whip 'em!", triggering a chorus of shouts and jeers. The hush broken, echoes and cries of "haul him", and "hang 'im" were gleefully shouted from the faceless crowd. The cruelty of the men shocked Jim, he thought his punishment would be bad, but they wanted him dead.
Captain signalled to the mate, a fearsome crack of the whip drove the men back to silence. The Captain clucked his tongue like a disappointed mother, scolding her children for not coming in at dusk.
"Now men, we can't be savages. If we kill the poor boy, who will take his duties? Will it be you, Mitchell?" Captain peered out into the crowd, the men's eyes shifting away. "Or maybe you'd like to swab out the pigs below-deck, Mason?" The captain shook his head, disapprovingly. "No, no, this won't do. We need to leave 'im alive but with something to remember us by, so he never forgets his duties, not ever again."
At this the murmurs of the crew returned, the lust for blood in their eyes. The lost time cost them all money, and as the newest of the crew, Jim's share was smallest, but also the least affected by the delays caused by the Spanish attack.
Cap'n paced back and forth in front of the scared boy, little more than sixteen years of age. Stopped on a sharp heel, and looked down at him, straight in the eye.
"Can I trust you, boy?" Captain's steely glare nearly unmanned Jim, it took all he had left just to not cower.
"Yes sir." Jim squeaked. He hadn't been this scared in his short life, ever, not even when Momma caught him in the hay with the pretty girl from down the street, Susie, was that her name? Distracted again.
"A fingertip!" Captain shouted to the crew assembled around them, still staring into Jim's eyes, his breath hot and rank in Jim's face. The men muttered and grumbled, a fingertip was less than the sea took from many of them. "And twenty-five kisses from the first mate's pet." A howl of glee rose from the men at the realization of their blood-lust. Five lashes of that terrible whip was enough take the vinegar out of the bravest crew, twenty-five would strip flesh from bone and surely kill him.
The sadistic gleam in the first mates eye was all it took for Jim's nerve to fail him, he felt wetness run down his breeches and puddle on the deck.