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Chatham's Last Stand
Dominic Chatham’s thin, knobby fingers closed around the neck of the bottle again. His knuckles stood out, stark white, against his burnt skin. The green glass seemed to outline his sickly pallor, and his hands looked too weak to even lift the drink.
A thin layer of dust lay on everything. It was dark, but the sun screamed bright and loud outside the cabin. Everything seemed covered in a lethargic, dull film, unable to glean even the slightest effort to move or renew itself.
Gingerly, Chatham raised his gin, his hand quivering, veins coursing with forty years’ worth of moonshine. He tipped the bottle, pouring a generous serving of the stuff into a glass – dusty, and smothered in grey, as if it had been dropped in a fire. With his other hand, he knocked the glass back, the gin touching his cracked, thin lips and running through what teeth he had left.
His ship continued its gentle bob through the waves, but to Chatham, it seemed as if Satan himself was tossing the boat hither and thither. His watery, blue eyes seemed about to roll back into his head, as he slumped across his chair, hand still resting on the near-empty bottle.
He nearly had a stroke when he heard the sharp knocks at the door.
Chatham did not waste his precious heartbeats on words. Whoever was at the door would come in, eventually; they did not need instruction. It was useless to waste words, and Chatham has wasted far too many in his lifetime.
Sure enough, the cabin door opened a crack, and a tousled, mousy head peeked through.
With great effort, Chatham opened his papery lips. His face seemed to crack with the effort, great gorges appearing by the corners of his mouth, exposing yellowed and cracked teeth.
“They’ve come,” Chatham rasped with difficulty. It was not a verifying statement. It was a fact. He knew they would come.
They deserved acknowledgement.
The mousy-haired boy coughed quietly. His young eyes glinted, elf-like, in the dim lighting of the cabin. Scratching at where his new, gold earring had infected his skin, he looked nervously at the captain, furrowing his brow.
“We could hold them off, sir,” he said stolidly. “Finney and them, they’ve loaded the cannons, we’re all ready, just need your word, sir.” He picked at his ear again. It really was starting to become a downright frustration.
Chatham gazed at the boy, glassy eyes barely registering his appearance. Tantalizingly, he removed his fingers one by one from the bottle, one skeletal digit at a time. His bones threatened to pop out of his gray skin.
Lifting the head he balanced so precariously on his toothpick neck, Chatham looked at the boy.
Several long, antagonizing moments passed, the drilling gaze of Chatham, the man the boy so revered and feared, gouging deep into his eyes. He could not believe – no, he would not believe – that this could be the end for the infallible Captain. It was not right.
“Ben,” Chatham said slowly, his voice husky and determined.
Ben stopped scratching his ear.
“No,” the old man continued, heaving with the effort of saying these simple words. He was at his life’s end, Ben could plainly see. His joints had stretched his yellowing skin to breaking point. His eyes had become cloudy, mugged over with the demon drink. Dominic Chatham could barely lift a shot glass, let alone a shotgun.
Ben’s clear, twinkling eyes seemed to freeze. His face, without moving a muscle, seemed to visibly droop, his insides falling apart. This was the look of a man whose world would come falling down.
Ben did not say a word. Good old Ben, seafaring since he could walk, who had grown up on this ship with the crew, the men, the mates, the Captain. He stood, silent as death.
Chatham then did a task so monumental that it knocked a few more days off his life. He pushed his chair back, and stood up, eye level to Ben, gripping the table for dear life and began to hobble a few paces. Ben feared that he would break right before him, yet rushing to his aid did not seem prudent.
Chatham had not risen from his slumped seat in three days.
Then Dominic Chatham began to walk. One fragile foot at a time, he limped over to the doorway. Ben was transfixed; he could not take his eyes of this miraculous man. This man, who, when he knew all was lost, did not run or hide, but strode forward with as much pride as he could muster. He would go down with trumpets blazing, with honor, with class. For, though his profession was by no stretch of a conventional mind considered noble, here was a man who was as brave and just as the most chivalrous knight, the greatest god, the most honorable hero.
Here stood the last of a dying breed. Here was the final king of a dying land.
Here lay the end of the line.
Chatham lifted his head. He summoned up the remainder of his strength. With great effort, he strode with such elegance and poise out the door that it would have put even the most regal nobleman to shame. Ben was aware that this was taking all the effort Chatham had, and was an ineffable strain on his withered body, and for this he admired his captain even more.
“Sir, do you want me to -”
Chatham responded by holding up a withered hand.
“Don’t -” Chatham coughed. He seemed to be hacking up his own, aged heart.
“No,” Chatham repeated, his voice raspy and grating, as if his windpipe had been mutilated with a mace.
He looked firmly at Ben, his protégée, his young student.
“Me,” Chatham said quietly. “They… want… me.”
He motioned, with a shaking hand, for Ben to move aside. Chatham gazed at the passionate young lad again, and this time, he registered Ben’s fear. What would happen, now that the last lord of this seafaring life is taken? Ben’s childhood, what he was raised on, everything he stood for – gone, in a moment of planned surrender.
Chatham smiled fragiley.
“It’s over, Ben,” he whispered, with an air of finality and submission.
Then he walked out the door, into their waiting arms.