Chapter 1 - Rum Yer Mouth
“What ye wanting to be done with ’em then, Cap’n?” Bones, my exceptionally large quartermaster, spat a thick brown glob at the prisoners’ feet – bound by heavy iron shackles that rattled against the deck – and grinned with a flash of yellowed teeth. “Would ye rather we lock ’em up with the bilge rats or have ’em walk the plank?”
“Dance the hempen jig, we will,” another peg-legged pirate contributed sourly from his hoity perch on a pilfered freshwater barrel. “Those Jack Tar sons of bitches wilnae be going down quiet. Trouble be comin’, just ye watch. Be measured fer our chains, we will.”
Apparently encouraged by old Peg-leg’s superstitions, the English officer at the front found the courage to step forward, only to be stopped by the slash of my rapier. He cursed and staggered back. “You won’t get away with this, you savage bastard. The Royal Navy has been tasked with monitoring pirate activity across the seas. You will be caught, and you will be hanged for your crimes against the Crown.”
I gave a dark chuckle and pressed the tip of my blade into the hollow of the Englishman’s throat. “I dunnae give two shits about yer Crown.” I held the blade steady as I pressed closer and sank the tip into his flesh, rotating it deeper, then quickly cutting him down.
The officer gave a gargled cry and dropped to a bloody heap on the deck.
Bones didn’t require any more prompting. Admittedly overeager, he rolled a dagger across his fingers, catching it deftly on the last flip over, and sliced it across another plucky officer’s throat. Our remaining captives weren’t good for many heroics after that.
So, after cleaning my weapon against my thigh, I sheathed it, beat the soot from my fallen hat, and clamped it back on my head.
“Ye’ll have us chasin’ after spirits soon,” Peg-leg harrumphed with a shake of his head.
Bones grinned, swiping his tongue at the tobacco between his fat upper lip and cheek. “Dunnae fret yerself. This here sailors be takin’ their ghosts with ’em.”
I ignored them, rather than give rise to my irritation. More of our crew propelled themselves up the ladder to the upper deck as I strode across the weathered planks to man the helm. Curling my hands around the timber ship’s wheel, my gaze raked over the commotion below.
“Avast ye! Blow these stiff fuckers down and throw ’em overboard!” I bellowed with a dismissive swipe of my hand. “Haul wind north! Swab tha’ blood off the deck! Come on then, there be rum!” Motivated by the greatest result of our victory, those closest scurried to lug the dead away, while others cut loose the grappling hooks and clambered back up the rigging to adjust the sails. Cheers rang out as the last of our captives in battle, some skewered from mouth to gullet, disappeared overboard.
Not long after, sails unfurled against the white-puffed sky, the hulking brigantine cut through the gentle thrust of the waves as I brought her about.
Slower than the single-masted sloop the English had sunk, the Sea Gypsy was more battle ready, as had been proved this day. She carried over ten cannons and close to fifty pirates. Not that she had been an overparticular find. Thieved from a wealthy merchant at sea, the Sea Gypsy was a captured vessel, altered handsomely to our needs – and we looted our fair share of prizes.
The finest silks and spices, irons and opium, all intercepted en route to the Middle East. We made quite the profitable coin selling them at Pirate Harbour.
At that minute, the crew focused their attention on the blazing keel drifting off course, almost out of sight, and on the English Captain secured to the sprung mainmast, whose dying screams grew fainter over the distance.
There was poetic justice in that. The bastards, who were nothing if not pompous, had killed off my entire crew once before and attempted to do so again this day, but this time we had seen ourselves better prepared for our opponent. An hour past, I could still hear the booming whistle of our cannon balls through the air, the clouds of smoke rolling, and the dull roar when it tore through their hull. It was a battle won against my enemies, the English, and I trained my spyglass on the horizon and watched.
The vessel creaked and cracked amidships; the stern slowly subsumed by the waves as the bow lifted from the waterline, before being pulled down into the depths of its watery grave. Barely a ripple remained on the surface of water, but for a few broken barrels and crates that floated out on the tide.
My grip tightened around the splintered spoke handles. Pent-up rage still simmered beneath my bridled façade. Notwithstanding our present victory – by luck more than by sound strategy and prudent manoeuvre – I wished to steer the hellburner into an entire naval fleet to set more of my enemy afire.
Bones approached, wiping his face on his torn sleeve. “How ’bout that rum now, Cap’n?”
“Aye,” I concurred, passing the spyglass to him. “But if the men be too loaded t’ the gunwales to strike sails in the morn, I’ll throw ye over t’ join the stiff coats.”
With an “Aye, Aye, Cap’n” and a salute, he strode away to reap his portion of the booty. Between Bones and old Peg-leg as first mate, they were tasked with distributing rations, powder, and prizes, as well as overseeing Cook and the galley.
The English didn’t have many luxuries to loot, but for gun powder, food and drink. A godsend after months at sea.
Shipboard food was limited to what would keep in the course of long voyages. Hardtack, that after a few weeks at sea was inevitably infested with weevils, salted or dried beef that resembled black oak, and rum or ale – preferred for drinking as it kept better than fresh water, which spoiled and turned slimy in its storage casks.
Without access to any of the major seaports, there was rarely a steady supply of food, which eventually provoked discontent among the crew. When sickness and famine arose, mutiny was the consequence. I’d since learned that strong drink staved off the effects of hunger and further grievances better than any water intake.
And so, I grabbed a bottle of rum as the last of the spoils were carried away and made my way to the cramped captain’s quarter behind the stairs of the bottom deck. I spat the cork to the deck after I drew it from the bottle with my teeth and took a deep swig. Wiping my chin on the back of my hand, I gladly welcomed the pleasant burn of the spirits down my throat.
Best goddamned tonic there ever was.
Upon entering, I kicked the cabin door shut behind me and fell into a chair between the windowed wall and voyage table, just as Peg-leg took to playing the harmonica. I took another swig from the bottle and strained to hear my first mate’s short-breathed blows into the haggard mouthpiece, then stopped before the broken notes drove me to cover my ears.
They were a boisterous lot best left to their merrymaking. I had better things to do, like nursing a bottle of rum and envisaging the defeat of the English fleet. Mayhap with a capable helmsman at the wheel, I could do just that.
My jaw muscles worked as I slammed the bottle down on the table and frowned over the worn map before me, charted by the previous captain to identify the trade routes that linked the seas of the East and the West, the one responsible for our fortunes in the West Indian seas. To those captives were extended our lenience, them we had sold as slaves.
Hunched over the table, I traced the nautical lines of the chart with the tip of a calloused finger. It would soon be time to search for another such target. For bartering the loot of a naval ship did not result in the same riches as the cargo of a wealthy merchant.
A knock sounded at the door, distracting me, and I tossed the map aside.
“Aye,” I grumbled.
Bones entered, dwarfing the cast metal knob in his meaty palm. The noise from above deck drifted through the open door, the words of several familiar sea shanties chorused on the night air, and quietened down again when he closed and leaned against it.
A man of enormous and intimidating size, he possessed, too, cunning and rapacity that rivalled mine. It was the reason I hadn’t fully disclosed the truth of my past.
Though I’d trusted Bones sufficiently to reveal the mainspring of my ambition, I’d never trusted him completely. He was too ruthlessly opportunistic to not exploit every advantage. But that suited him fine. Caring naught for why I vowed to take my vengeance against the English – if for no other reason than to satisfy his own need for rebellion – to him, it was enough that I had plausible cause.
“Pirate Harbour be callin’, Cap’n.”
A frown darkened my brow as I considered his words, the ones he spoke and those he hadn’t, a way to counteract the progressing restlessness of the crew. It had been months since we anchored anywhere that didn’t include the near uninhabitable islands on the northern tropic – months of forced abstinence with no ship’s whore to see them spent.
I grimaced. I could see the drawback in that.
Bones laughed at my indecision, a reaction that pulled at his knotted scars. “Leave the stiff coats be fer now. The crew willnae take fer granted a few good meals and a warm cunt t’ wrap ’round their cocks.”
I nodded reflectively, reaching for my drink.
He had a point there. It was the sensible course for the better prevention of mutinous acts, more so than having the men keelhauled for committing them.
“Verra well,” I allowed. “Adjust course fer Pirate Harbour and be ready t’ take over from the helmsman in the morn.”
“Aye, and ye get some shut eye, Cap’n. Yer mood’s as pissy as a lass bleedin’ her first.”
Another ripple of guttural laughter sounded off the walls when he made his escape, slamming the door behind him just in time to avoid being struck by the unlit lantern I’d seized from the edge of the table. The glass shattered on impact, exactly where his face had been.