The wind was a ghost’s whisper across the water. It fluttered along the boards of the hull and streamed backwards, a swallowtail behind the thirty foot copper-clad sloop. The fishhook moon smiled up at Kel from the black water flowing past to starboard. He gave a tremulous smile back at its reflection and twisted to look forward.
“Down to twelve feet, captain,” Arnie hoarsely whispered from the bow. Kel could see the glint of her silver rings in the moonlight as she hauled up the depth line and prepared for the next toss. He tensed his fingers around his oar and readied for what he knew was coming.
“We’re at the neck now, friends,” the skipper’s call was barely audible above the soft splash of the depthline’s charge slipping back into the channel. “I don’t need to remind you what happens if we don’t do this fast, quiet, and smart.” A jabbing finger, sharp nailed and glittering stabbed at the night-cloaked shoreline. Here the trees loomed in towards the river like hulking bodyguards ready to shoulder them out of an Essex bar. The dark obscured what Kel knew lay under their scraggly branches - long low bunkers and a prodigious amount of men with guns and arrows who would not be pleased to see them slipping by in the dead of night without paying the levy.
A low rumbling started along the rowing benches. It was the end of the burning season and the waterways were shrinking. Much lower and The Alligator would be in danger of wallowing in the mud like its namesake. Kel’s pulse hammered in his temples, half dehydration, half adrenaline. This was his first run into the Punkerport and the marshy stink of the polluted water made him yearn for the briny tang of the open sea once more. He narrowed his eyes as a sudden flash lit the darkness.
“We’re spotted!” he yelped as a projectile whistled overhead and continued into the water beyond with a splash.
“All hands pull!” the skipper growled, and The Alligator surged forward as the oar crew stretched their backs into the thrust. Arnie’s readings at the bow came as fast as she could throw the weight now.
“By the mark, Eight and a half. Eight now,” her voice was punctuated by the whistle-shriek of bullets, and the flashes on the shore were close enough in the narrowing channel that Kel could see the faces of the shooters in the flare of the discharge. He felt a trickle of sweat tracing its way between his heaving shoulder blades but he didn’t dare pause.
“Five degrees to port!” Arnie shouted. The captain nodded, twitching the rudder to the right - his jaw stony, eyes staring down into the dark water, trying to keep the craft in the deepest part of the channel. The shore seemed to inch by in slow motion and the range was closing. An arrow skimmed over the gunwale and buried itself in the bare mast, missing Kel’s shoulder by a hair.
“Heave to!” a cry from the shore came crisply across the water. “Surrender your cargo and we’ll let you live.”
“Think I’d trust the word of a Long Berth?” The skipper shot back, and the crackling of firearms increased, punctuated with a few choice insults from the fighters on the shore.
“By the mark, seven!” Arnie hollered and the rowers doubled their intensity. The keel wouldn’t clear much past six feet in depth.
And then it happened - an awful grinding sound beneath their feet and their speed slowed. They were scraping the bottom now, and in this narrowest part of the waterway, the treeline was only a few yards away on each side.
A shout, and Kel looked up to see the skipper doubling over, a dark stain spreading across his sleeve which now hung limply at his side. A body pushed past him - Arnie diving to seize the rudder and shoving the skipper down into the cockpit.
“Kel! We need you in the water! You too, Cleat!”
He dropped his oar into the locks and turned towards the bow. The Baywalker next to him did the same, JP tattoo dark beneath the hollows of his eyes. The grinding on the hull was louder now, reverberating through their feet and throwing him off balance as he lunged towards the prow. Arnie was muttering to herself as they went, “Told him we was too heavy with this metal. Should have taken the plastics instead I said. Not been enough rain.”
The wood of the railing was silky beneath his feet, ground smooth by years of scraping and sanding and bare feet. Kel snagged a sheet as he went, wrapping the end of the rope twice around his hand and hoping the other end was tied to something solid. He didn’t have time to check before he jumped.
The water was warmer than he expected with the sun down for hours, and the force of his jump carried him down beneath the surface, his ankles sank into the soft mud at the bottom of the channel. Kel tugged at the rope above his head and heaved himself upwards, breaking into the warm night air as Cleat slammed into the water next to him. Immediately they both began to swim, pulling the rope taut and tugging the boat through the water. It was scraping less now, with their weight offloaded, but still dragged sluggishly behind. Kel’s free hand splayed wide, the translucent webbing between his fingers and toes scooping hard into the water. He kicked with all his might, feeling the resistance of the boat pulling him backwards with the current. The shouting on the shore intensified and arrows pierced the water near them, bobbing back to the surface harmlessly.
The sky above was suddenly illuminated. The Long Berthers had lit their arrows on fire, content to haul the scrap out of the bottom of the channel after they had all burned and died. His legs were starting to cramp up from the constant kicking.
And then miraculously the boat was surging past them. They had cleared the bar. The rowers cheered as The Alligator once more sprang into crisp motion. The swimmers drifted back along the side, hauled along by the very rope they’d been tugging. A fire arrow thudded into the hull next to Kel’s head and he splashed water on it before it could light up the tarred wood above the copper cladding. Something beneath the water brushed against his legs and he shuddered.
“Get us up!”
Hands reached over the side and hauled them upwards, depositing them as soggy lumps in the center of the boat as something smooth and scaled broke the surface of the water they’d just left. The shore was retreating once more, the crack of firearms fading into the distance. Kel dashed back to his spot and picked up his oar, resuming his rowing until Arnie shouted “Rest!” long minutes later. Panting, he collapsed forward and chugged on the waterskin beneath his seat. When he finally had a chance to look around, he realized how far they’d come. A broad lake stretched into the darkness on either side, its surface choppy with a stiffening breeze. Beneath the dark waves faint glowing shapes moved and far, far ahead there were torchlights sparkling and distant across the water. He thought he could hear off-key singing.
“The Punkerport.” Arnie affirmed, looking up from bandaging the skipper’s arm.
“Is it always like this?” he asked incredulously. “Getting here, I mean.”
“Not always.” Arnie shook her head with a sharp, toothy grin. “Sometimes it’s worse.”
“Welcome to Bravado, Kel.”
A Junkerpunks Vignette by A. Garcia