It was one of those seasons when the fish came late. I worked my boat and crew hard, running far northwards each day, coming back into Grand Harbour long after dark each night, but it was November the 6th when we picked up the first of the big ones riding down on the wine purple swells of the Mozambique current.
By this time I was desperate for a fish. My charter was a party of one, an advertising wheel from New York named Chuck McGeorge, one of my regulars who made the annual six-thousand-mile pilgrimage to St Mary's island for the big marlin. He was a short wiry little man, bald as an ostrich egg and grey at the temples, with a wizened brown monkey face but the good hard legs that are necessary to take on the big fish.
When at last we saw the fish, he was riding high in the water, showing the full length of his fin, longer than a man's arm and with the scimitar curve that distinguishes it from shark or porpoise. Angelo spotted him at the instant that I did, and he hung out on the foredeck stay and yelled with excitement, his gipsy curls dangling on his dark cheeks and his teeth flashing in the brilliant tropical sunlight.
The fish crested and wallowed, the water opening about him so that he looked like a forest log, black and heavy and massive, his tail fin echoing the graceful curve of the dorsal, before he slid down into the next trough and the water closed over his broad glistening back.
I turned and glared down into the cockpit. Chubby was already helping Chuck into the big fighting chair, clinching the heavy harness and gloving him up, but he looked up and caught my eye.
Chubby scowled heavily and spat over the side, in complete contrast to the excitement that gripped the rest of us. Chubby is a huge man, as tall as I am but a lot heavier in the shoulder and gut. He is also one of the most staunch and consistent pessimists in the business.
'Shy fish!' grunted Chubby, and spat again. I grinned at him.
'Don't mind him, Chuck,' I called, 'old Harry is going to set you into that fish.'
'I've got a thousand bucks that says you don't,' Chuck shouted back, his face screwed up against the dazzle of the sun-flecked sea, but his eyes twinkling with excitement.
'You're on!' I accepted a bet I couldn't afford and turned my attention to the fish.
Chubby was right, of course. After me, he is the best billfish man in the entire world. The fish was big and shy and scary.
Five times I had the baits to him, working him with all the skill and cunning I could muster. Each time he turned away and sounded as I bought Wave Dancer in on a converging course to cross his beak.
'Chubby, there is a fresh dolphin bait in the ice box: haul in the teasers, and we'll run him with a single bait,' I shouted despairingly.
I put the dolphin to him. I had rigged the bait myself and it swam with a fine natural action in the water. I recognized the instant in which the marlin accepted the bait. He seemed to hunch his great shoulders and I caught the flash of his belly, like a mirror below the surface, as he turned.
'Follow!' screamed Angelo. 'He follows!'
I set Chuck into the fish at a little after ten o'clock in the morning, and I fought him close. Superfluous line in the water would place additional strain on the man at the rod. My job required infinitely more skill than gritting the teeth and hanging on to the heavy fibreglass rod. I kept Wave Dancer running hard on the fish through the first frenzied charges and frantic flashing leaps until Chuck could settle down in the fighting chair and lean on the marlin, using those fine fighting legs of his.
A few minutes after noon, Chuck had the fish beaten. He was on the surface, in the first of the wide circles which Chuck would narrow with each turn until we had him at the gaff.
'Hey, Harry!' Angelo called suddenly, breaking my concentration. 'We got a visitor, man!'
'What is it, Angelo?'
'Big Johnny coming up current.' He pointed. 'Fish is bleeding, he's smelt it.'
I looked and saw the shark coming. The blunt fin moving up steadily, drawn by the struggle and smell of blood. He was a big hammerhead, and I called to Angelo.
'Bridge, Angelo,' and I gave him the wheel.
'Harry, you let that bastard chew my fish and you can kiss your thousand bucks goodbye,' Chuck grunted sweatily at me from the fighting chair, and I dived into the main cabin.
Dropping to my knees I knocked open the toggles that held down the engine hatch and I slid it open.
Lying on my belly, I reached up under the decking and grasped the stock of the FN carbine hanging in its special concealed slings of inner tubing.
As I came out on to the deck I checked the loading of the rifle, and pushed the selector on to automatic fire.
'Angelo, lay me alongside that old Johnny.'
Hanging over the rail in Wave Dancer's bows, I looked down on to the shark as Angelo ran over him. He was a hammerhead all right, a big one, twelve feet from tip to tail, coppery bronze through the clear water.
I aimed carefully between the monstrous eyestalks which flattened and deformed the shark's head, and I fired a short burst.
The FN roared, the empty brass cases spewed from the weapon and the water erupted in quick stabbing splashes.
The shark shuddered convulsively as the bullets smashed into his head, shattering the gristly bone and bursting his tiny brain. He rolled over and began to sink.
'Thanks, Harry,' Chuck gasped, sweating and red-faced in the chair.
'All part of the service,' I grinned at him, and went to take the wheel from Angelo.
At ten minutes to one, Chuck brought the marlin up to the gaff, punishing him until the great fish came over on his side, the sickle tail beating feebly, and the long beak opening and shutting spasmodically. The glazed single eye was as big as a ripe apple, and the long body pulsed and shone with a thousand flowing shades of silver and gold and royal purple.
'Cleanly now, Chubby,' I shouted, as I got a gloved hand on the steeltrace and drew the fish gently towards where Chubby waited with the stainless-steel hook at the gaff held ready.
Chubby withered me with a glance that told me clearly that he had been pulling the steel into billfish when I was still a gutter kid in a London slum.
'Wait for the roll,' I cautioned him again, just to plague him a little, and Chubby's lip curled at the unsolicited advice.
The swell rolled the fish up to us, opening the wide chest that glowed silver between the spread wings of the pectoral fins.
'Now!' I said, and Chubby sank the steel in deep. In a burst of bright crimson heart blood, the fish went into its death frenzy, beating the surface to flashing white and drenching us all under fifty gallons of thrown sea water.
I hung the fish on Admiralty Wharf from the derrick of the crane. Benjamin, the harbour-master, signed a certificate for a total weight of eight hundred and seventeen pounds. Although the vivid fluorescent colours had faded in death to flat sooty black, yet it was impressive for its sheer bulk--fourteen feet six inches from the point of its bill to the tip of its flaring swallow tail.
'Mister Harry done hung a Moses on Admiralty,' the word was carried through the streets by running bare-footed urchins, and the islanders joyously snatched at the excuse to cease work and crowd the wharf in fiesta array.
The word travelled as far as old Government House on the bluff, and the presidential Land-Rover came buzzing down the twisting road with the gay little flag fluttering on the bonnet. It butted its way through the crowd and deposited the great man on the wharf. Before independence, Godfrey Biddle had been St Mary's only solicitor, island-born and London-trained.
'Mister Harry, what a magnificent specimen,' he cried delightedly. A fish like this would give impetus to St Mary's budding tourist trade, and he came to clasp my hand. As State Presidents go in this part of the world, he was top of the class.
'Thank you, Mr President, sir.' Even with the black homburg on his head, he reached to my armpit. He was a symphony in black, black wool suit, and patent leather shoes, skin the colour of polished anthracite and only a fringe of startlingly white fluffy hair curling around his ears.
'You really are to be congratulated.' President Biddle was dancingwith excitement, and I knew I'd be eating at Government House on guest nights again this season. It had taken a year or two--but the President had finally accepted me as though I was island-born. I was one of his children, with all the special privilege that this position carried with it.
Fred Coker arrived in his hearse, but armed with his photographic equipment, and while he set up his tripod and disappeared under the black cloth to focus the ancient camera, we posed for him beside the colossal carcass. Chuck in the middle holding the rod, with the rest of us grouped around him, arms folded like a football team. Angelo and I were grinning and Chubby was scowling horrifically into the lens. The picture would look good in my new advertising brochure--loyal crew and intrepid skipper, hair curling out from under his cap and from the vee of his shirt, all muscle and smiles--it would really pack them in next season.
I arranged for the fish to go into the cold room down at the pineapple export sheds. I would consign it out to Rowland Wards of London for mounting on the next refrigerated shipment. Then I left Angelo and Chubby to scrub down Dancer's decks, refuel her across the harbour at the Shell basin and take her out to moorings.
As Chuck and I climbed into the cab of my battered old Ford pick-up, Chubby sidled across like a racecourse tipster, speaking out of the corner of his mouth.
'Harry, about my billfish bonus--' I knew exactly what he was going to ask, we went through this every time.
'Mrs Chubby doesn't have to know about it, right?' I finished for him.
'That's right,' he agreed lugubriously, and pushed his filthy deep-sea cap to the back of his head.
THE EYE OF THE TIGER and HUNGRY AS THE SEA. Copyright © 2005 by Wilbur Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.