Elisabeth stood within the bounds of the cupola and looked out to sea. The storm was beginning to rage full-tilt now, abusive and wretched, making division between the coast and areas inland such that the coast would have mostly water and frozen rain, or at the very least melting snow in abundance, whereas the mountains and plains would bear a resemblance to a solid white counterpane heaped up over numerous indistinct bodies, their purpose in lying so still to be covered not certain, if not rooted in death itself.
She’d wished to go with John, she’d asked repeatedly to be taken along on the small, refitted trawler, but he had protested that as he himself knew very little about sailing, he didn’t wish to take her along too and endanger her life as well. It had been clear to all of them, to him and his five brothers, that they had to get out even if a storm was on the way, even if a trawler wasn’t the ideal vehicle for it, and search for the treasure before the McPherson sisters got to it.
Elisabeth, in her heart of hearts, had some sympathy for the sisters, Rosalee and Winnie. They were very close in age, in their forties, and knew what they were about, though little it was they shared the tricks of the trade. They were treasure seekers, and what’s more had made a good living at it for about twenty years, give or take. They’d even gone along with a couple of scientific expeditions to recover gold from sunken Spanish ships out in the broad ocean once upon a time, though now they stuck closer in, even sometimes just taking fishing expeditions out for variety. She admired their strength, since she felt she had so little, and somehow for six men to be out on the ocean doing their best to do two middle-aged women out of what they seemed to have more of a traditional right to didn’t sit comfortably with her.
But John had researched the matter, had thought he’d located the general area where the Belle Handsome went down fifty years ago, all hands on deck carrying a shipment of illegally acquired gold bullion from Mexico to Venezuela. Since the remains had drifted or been carried by storms just like today’s and, by his earnest calculation, were now in full international waters, anyone could look. The six brothers were determined that legal or illegal, it was theirs for the taking if they could raise it. Only three of John’s brothers were what you might call seaworthy vessels, though John himself was healthy enough at fifty for two men. His two youngest brothers were sickly and spindly in her eyes, and furthermore John and his eldest brother were not sea-going men. They’d been in other people’s speed boats on rivers and lakes, had even taken a turn at steering, but all in all, Elisabeth considered the whole venture at best a waste of time, and at worst a threat to life and limb. She’d wanted to go with John in good weather, but when it was clear that they were planning to ship in the middle of such a hell broth, she desisted from persuasion, and let John talk her into staying home instead.
Elisabeth squinted and peered, finally holding the binoculars up to her eyes, as the spy-glass on the cupola of the small period house she and John had bought was busted right out and they had never repaired it. She saw something bumping furiously up and down on the waves in the distance over to the left, but it didn’t look as large as even the small trawler had on going out. The sleet and snow were making it hard for her to see, but yes, there was something dark on the waves, getting short shrift from the pounding of the sea and the relentless pissing down of precipitation. Heaven wasn’t a word for it when it released such evil torrents of white death.
Yes, it was a small raft, or a side of ship waste, and as it drew closer, she saw that there were three indistinct figures clinging to it, anyhow clinging, alive enough to know that they were desperately near to death, but not able to strike a bargain with the elements, instead just riding it out. Should she wait, or go down to the shore? The ocean billowed up once in a huge wave as they drew nearer, and they went under. Finally awakened to the reality of it all, she gasped like a baby just spanked for the first time into awareness, and turned and raced down the steps and out of the house, in her haste leaving the door open behind her. It hardly even mattered who they were, they might be people, still alive.
Elisabeth strode as far as she could get into the surf without getting washed away, and after a scene of desolate, empty ocean, the tiny scrap of metal and plastic bobbed up into view again, the three yet holding on. They were nearer to her now, and she called to them, not even knowing what she said, perhaps “Halloo, halloo!” to let them know if they could but paddle a little, she with even her small strength might be able to help retrieve them.
The rest was phantasmagoric, but when they drew nearly abreast and she pulled as well as she could to drag them towards shore, avoiding the jagged edges of the non-wooden fragment they floated on, she saw it was John and the two sisters. The three women struggled and managed to pull themselves towards where the pale sand lay covered with white. At the last minute, John’s left wrist, tied to something under the slab of material, started to tug the other way, into the water, nearly rolling him off. Elisabeth, using all her might, grabbed at it and unwound it from his arm; it was a wet sack, with something very dense and heavy in it. Elisabeth looked at her husband’s face, as pale as she had ever seen it, his hair stringing wild as seaweed over his face and collar. Her eyes happened to meet Winnie’s eyes, which rested on the bag. With a sudden intuition of what was in it, she grabbed it, waded backwards towards the shore, and slung the one bar of gold they’d managed to retrieve angrily and full force against the wind and the ocean’s depredations.
John’s eyes were closed; he was alive, but so barely that he had not only not missed the bag, but he hadn’t seen her throw it. Catching Winnie’s eye again, and then Rosalee’s, she gestured freely towards the bounty of the shoreline, where the bag had hit a huge boulder and fallen, harmlessly wedged into a crack in the breakwater.
“Are you sure?” asked Winnie, as the two women helped her pull the wrecked fragment with John still half-conscious on it onto the soft and treacherous safety of land.
“You saved him, didn’t you? Could I do less for him, for you?” she answered furiously, knowing that if John had sought some form of dry-land treasure, done something more productive with his time than going into an ocean and coming out without his brothers, that she too might’ve had money to burn.
“That we did,” confirmed Rosalee, pinching her nostrils to with her finger and thumb, and blowing snot and effluvia out, then stooping to rinse her hand in the tide. “Well, then, we’ll retrieve that and be on our way. Unless you need help getting him inside, that is.”
Elisabeth gave a firm shake to her head, turning now to the near-corpse of her husband. He was bleary-eyed and reminded her of a dead jellyfish that had washed up on shore, his arms and legs like tentacles extended outward in different directions, his clothes forming wet panels between them. The two sisters were up the beach and gone with their booty before John really stirred. It was then that he saw Elisabeth looking down at him, showed some kind of cognizance, gave a quick glance all around him, then glared up at her, a strange surmise in his eyes. “Did you see anything tied to my arm? A sort of bag? Quick, before it sinks and gets away again. It’s got a gold bar in it.”
“No, there was nothing. Just a heavy iron weight, tied to a rope, that had gotten wrapped around your arm and was weighing you down. No gold.”
“But I know I had gold! One bar, at least.”
“You must have imagined it. You’re lucky to have survived. Your brothers don’t appear to have been so lucky.”
“No?” he said, as if indifferent. But the next minute, or perhaps after several minutes, or maybe in the hours after they returned to their small house, their lonely kitchen, their cold fireplace in the front room, where they had to sit with the chill because neither of them felt up to building up the flames, with the electricity off and the storm still endlessly roaring around them in their small shell, he felt something more. And Elisabeth watched him as he put his head in his arms and wept, her own eyes dry from her exhausted strength, as much as she had ever expended at one time for any human being other than herself.