On a beautiful day in the Caribbean, the drums roll.
A soldier's officious voice rings out, matter-of-fact and crisp, as the cart piled high with corpses is wheeled through the yard, and an empty one takes its place. “The condemned are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.”
The long line of the condemned, snaking through the yard and beyond, shuffles forward in defeat, the threatening muskets of the soldiers of the East India Trading Company doing their work. Six strangers take the hollow, echoing steps up to the hallows, irons clanking, and find their places beneath the nooses. The lone woman among them breathes unsteadily, her face streaked with tears.
The final set of footsteps makes next-to-no sound, as the young cabin boy climbs the stairs. His face streaked with dirt, lank hair falling in his eyes, he looks up at the noose twisting in the warm breeze several feet above his head. He lowers his gaze, watching the doubloon in his manackled hands as he slowly turns it between his fingers.
He sings softly to himself, his voice a low, steadying mumble. “The king and his men stole the queen from her bed.” The wind toys with his ragged sleeves and ruffles his hair, and he barely hears the rising roll of the drums again. His voice rises, high and true. “And bound her in her bones.”
The black-clad executioner crosses behind him, and the cabin boy sings louder, shaking his head once to himself as the heavy footsteps set the gallows to creaking. He will not look. “The seas be ours, and by the powers...” He bites his lower lip for the beat's rest, and then he raises his head, defiant and afraid, as he looks up into the blue, blue Caribbean sky. “Where we will, we’ll roam.”
The barrel hits the wooden gallows with a loud thud, directly in front of the cabin boy. The executioner's hands are large and cold, and he lifts the boy up onto the barrel in one heave. The boy falls silent as the noose is fitted around his neck, and he watches the way that the light catches his coin, his mouth shut tightly.
The condemned man to the left of the cabin boy stares at the ground, dark eyes defeated, and when he murmurs, “Yo ho,” it starts out weak, like the last gasp of a dying man. “All hands,” he sings, quiet and shaky, “hoist the colours high.”
The cabin boy's eyes dart to the side, and he begins the next line -- with a chorus of six adult voices. “Heave ho,” sing the seven with ropes around their necks, and that is when something curious begins to happen.
The next seven condemned to take the gallows take up the song, and the next seven, and the next seven. “Thieves and beggars, never shall we die.”
The song ripples through the line of prisoners, growing stronger by the second. “Yo ho,” pirates and whores and thieves sing together, their voices coming together into one strong, resonant roar. They stomp in time to the song, leaning toward the few East India Trading Company soldiers guarding the line, and the yard echoes with the rattle and clank of manacles and chains. “All together, hoist the colours high!”
The outnumbered soldiers cast wary glances at each other and begin to back away from the glaring, snarling, spitting, furiously proud prisoners.
On the gallows, the cabin boy's voice soars. “Heave ho, thieves and beggars.” The boy closes his hand tight on his coin and lifts his eyes to the heavens. “Never shall we die!”
The executioner pulls the lever.
A coin spirals down into the dirt as one pair of feet dangles limp in the breeze, high above the other six.