THE BOUNTY IS DESTROYED BY FIRE
Near a rocky shore a good ship died. Not to the cries of a drowning crew but to the spit, crackle and hiss of English oak burning. Run aground on the rocky shores of Pitcairn Island 'HMS Bounty' resembled a fiery torch. Blackened skin, like ancient paint, flaked and swirled into the night sky, until, bit by bit, the flaming skeleton weakened, broke and splashed into the moonstruck water.
Ned and Matt were washed red by the same flickering light. They were the culprits. They had lit the fires that set her alight; and for different reasons they both hoped she would burn up until nothing was left. Matt was older than Ned, and had an wide evil smile and pearly teeth. Ned remembered the teeth most of all when they made their fires and again when they took off in their boat. Ned saw it now in the light of the flames but held his tongue. It made Matt's smile seem even more sinister.
Matt didn't know how disturbingly his smile affected others. "Aye, but she burns well, don't she." He flashed his smile without considering an answer. Matthew Quintal, was getting drunk. He took another swig from the earthenware jug. He felt he thick molasses rum as it seared into his guts; still he liked that, it made him feel wedded to the firehis own well lit fire. He never did have much success at 'practicalities', as that bastard Bligh had called them, yet now he congratulated himself he 'sure could make a good fire'! He offered the jug to Edward Young. "T'were jist an accident," he said straightfaced, then sniggered.
"Why not just shut your gab," growled Edward 'Ned' Young as he waved his refusal at the jug. A week ago Young had planted the idea of destroying the ship in Quintal's brain, and now, just as Young planned, Quintal believed it was all his doing. The man's self-deception was so complete he had even begun to boast. Young sighed and leaned back against the transom. He watched the gutted ship burn and remembered how, in the last ten days, he had helped strip the Bounty of her most useful items. 'We will need everything we can tear out of her' he said to the reluctant Fletcher Christian who was too down, too preoccupied with himself and his own disappointments, to even ask why.
Among all the Europeans, Ned Young always thought himself the greatest realist, the ultimate pragmatist, he was the one who first understood the Bounty would have to be sunk. Why? Mainly because of their vacillating leader. The first to be homesick, Fletcher Christian seemed rudderless. Of recent days he was acting more like a little tyke who had broken his stick horse. It seemed to Young that all Fletcher's previous power and vitality were ebbing away. It was draining out of him as sure as a sliding tide would follow a full moon. Now their leader was all despair and gloom. Ned's hope was that the removal of the means of escape, Bounty's destruction, might shock Christian out of his lethargic mood. They desperately needed a leader otherwise the Quintals and McKoys would take over and Ned feared that as the real danger.
Ned squeezed his shoulders together hoping to relieve a sudden tension in his neck. It was not that Ned disliked Fletcher Christian. In truth Ned had supported his rebel friend from the very beginning, even knowing his weaknesses. Even from that day the foul-mouthed Bligh first tore into the his handsome second-in-command accusing him of petty theft. Ned remembered the shocked look on Christian's face. Then he realised Christian had no idea whyand Ned had no reason to tell him either. In truth, these days Ned Young never told anyone very much; so no one even guessed he knew the true reason for Bligh's hate of Christian. Now, he promised himself yet again, from this moment forward, I will never tell anyone anything without a reason. He remembered when a 'reasonable' explanation first got him into trouble with Bligh; when it all began; when Bligh ordered him beaten with the 'colt's end'. God how Ned hated that bastard Bligh; much more than Christian ever did. But Bligh should be long dead by now, he thought. Ned's only present regret was he was not there to witness it.
"Why, ain't you the serious one?' Quintal flashed his smile before taking another swig, he was determined not to let Ex- Midshipman Edward Young spoil his fun.
"I'm thinking." Young shrugged.
"Ha, 'spect that hurts a bit." Quintal was so surprised at his own wit he hunkered over and spurted a stream of rum over his knees.
Young glared. "Then don't you 'spect to be so dammed happy in twelve months time when you want to leave," he said sourly watching the man convulse. Ned knew it was important that everyone, the islanders, Quintall and the Europeans all believed they were stranded. He watched the doubt etch lines across Quintal's forehead and added cruelly, "You will never leave here Quintal, never ever, so frown as much as you want."
Nonplussed Quintal again smiled his pearly smile and looked harder at the bastard son of Sir Edward Young. He took in the dark skin and remembered that 'Midshipman Ned' was born in the West Indies. Able seaman Mathew Quintal and his friend McKoy had no time for anyone not immediately useful to them. This young officer whispered too much and too often with the twelve 'Indian' women for their liking. He also had learned some local dialect and chatted with the six native servants as if he were their equal. He was fast outliving his usefulness thought Quintal. "'Spect I'll survive," the big man commented wirily as he balanced the earthenware jug over his tattooed forearm and took another pull.
Meanwhile ashore, and at the base of a rocky outcrop, a small band of English sailors with their Tahitian retinue stood horror struck watching their home being destroyed by fire. For most it was as if an iron door had slammed shut between their past and their future. It struck the English sailors like a hammer blow for there would be no going back, no return to old loves. Family hearths, tavern brews and favourite threepenny whores were going up in flames. These uneasy handful of Bounty mutineers were henceforth destined to follow their South Sea experiment to wherever it would lead them. Suddenly, for the first time, it dawned on them they would have to rely on their own resources. That meant on each other. It struck the Tahitians even worse for they were not used to long sea travel and it seemed a miracle they had survived this far; now they despaired that since the ship was burnt they could ever return to their island home.
Fletcher Christian stood taller, and was physically much stronger than the rest. He shielded his eyes and wondered how any group of willing mutineers could ever rely on each other. Would you expect a bunch of hungry seagulls to share a mackerel he thought. Christian's dark-rimmed, hollow gaze retained little of its youthful sparklenor did any of his teenage dreams of fame, honour and fortune spark his interest any more. 'And all for what?' he asked himself. One moment Fletcher would blame himself the next he was not so sure if blame was relevant or important any more. Some called him 'Captain' but his spirits were so low the last thing he felt like doing was leading, making a decision or solving anyone else's problems.
Around their so-called leader tears blurred the vision of some while others expressed their despair by comforting hugs. Even the mutinous sailors knew Bounty as an honest and reliable old shipas sturdy and tested as any decent sailor would wish. Her shrouds had sung their sweet songs while spars bent in harmony during the fierce freezing gales when she rounded the Horn. Later her canvases billowed cheerfully under the fullness of a tropical winds. No sea had ever bested HMS Bounty and she had been in some monsters. Sadly now she was brittle charcoal and swirling ashes and even the mean-hearted were silenced.
European women considered Fletcher Christian a classically handsome man. He was tall with black curly hair, large brown Spanish eyes. The same eyes that now glistened with in the light of the fire. Fletcher had once thought the world was black and white but now feared it was nothing but thousands of shades of grey. Even simple things bore hidden traps and all actions had consequences he could not foresee. In their midst, but somehow separate from his men, he stood out. In any crowd Fletcher Christian was like a beacon, people naturally sought his company. He draped his right arm about his consort Isabella.
Isabella's native name was Manuata and Manuata was the second daughter of a great Tahitian chief. She looked up and her eyes searched her man's hollow face. Manuata and Fletcher Christian were born so far apart in everything but now they were cast together with no escape on a five square mile verdant outcrop in the middle of a vast ocean. Manuata was frightened but was practiced in hiding her feelings.
"Come 'Techer, it is finished," she said trying harder than usual to pronounce his strange European name. Her arm circled his waist and pulled him tight. She nestled her head in his shoulder. Manuata worried about Fletcher's black moods and had noted the faint cris-cross of lines that had appeared on his brow in recent months. She vaguely understood they had to do both with the burning of his ship and his role as leader of their groupa strange mixture of mutineers and islanders. How would they survive? There was plenty of food but few women. How would the men cope? Europeans couldn't see it but she did, she saw the apprehension in the faces of her own tribesmenand despite the warm night, and like a racehorse sniffing the blood of a distant knackers yard, she shivered her apprehension.
Later, when none of the flames were visible and only the two of them remained, Mantua tugged at Christian's sleeve and they began the long climb back up the steep cliffs to their tiny settlement. As they climbed it seemed as if she could almost reach up and pluck the stars from the clear tropical night.
Fletcher Christian hardly noticed a thing. He certainly had no idea that fourteen captured sailors were at that moment on board HMS Pandora bound for England's channel port of Portsmouth to stand trial for their part in the notorious mutiny that had occurred three years previously. Their accuser was Fletcher's enemy, the great hero Captain William Bligh. Among the prisoners was a cabin boy of sixteen years Thomas Ellison, a junior officer, Peter Heywood of eighteen years and junior warrant officer James Morrison. They were once friends of Fletcher Christian and all now faced the mandatory penalty for mutineers, death by strangulation at the end of a rope.
Mantua didn't notice the single tear running down Christian's cheek.