"Bloody Ben" Coffin in

The Ship Eaters



A 9-Chapter Pirate Adventure!

by Jeffrey Blair Latta


Chapter One - Shark Bait


The Caribbean, 1719

"AHOY THE DECK! Sail ho!"

Captain Simon Pettigrew stepped smartly to the quarterdeck rail of his square rigged naval man-o'-war. He raised his eyes, sighting up at the urgently pointing silhouette crouching in the maintop high overhead. His plumed bicorn hat cast a narrow shadow down the centre of his features. He squinted against the glare.

"Where away?" he called back.

"Fine on the starboard bow, sar!"

Without his asking, the first lieutenant passed the captain a telescope. Extending the glass, Pettigrew raised it to his eye and scanned the horizon just to the right of the bowsprit. It was a ship, all right, her tall pyramid of sails standing out brightly against the clear blue of the sky. Then, after a moment, he slowly lowered the glass. His features had suddenly gone pale, a state which did not escape the notice of the first lieutenant at his elbow.

"Sir? Do you know her?"

Pettigrew continued to gaze over the rail, without speaking. He hardly seemed to breathe. The lieutenant regarded him with concern. Something had frightened him, there could be no doubt about that. Something, but what?

The first lieutenant raised his own telescope and trained it on the ship. At this distance, little could be made out, but even so, he felt a strange shiver of unease. She was sailing close-hauled under topsails alone; there was scant wind in any case, and with so little canvas, she was making little headway in the rolling waves. There was no sign of activity on her decks, no one in the maintop lookout, no officers on the quarterdeck. She was flying the Union Jack from her mizzen mast, but made no attempt to signal their own ship--something which would have been expected under the circumstances.

Still gazing through the telescope, the lieutenant heard Captain Pettigrew whisper something, his voice drowned out by the sound of water rushing past the hull. The lieutenant lowered his glass and quizzically regarded the captain. "Sir?"

As if shaken from a dream, Pettigrew nodded once, barely perceptibly. "Prepare the jolly boat," he said.

***

Captain Pettigrew climbed aboard the ship and paused in the entry port. His eyes slowly surveyed the waist. There wasn't a man to be seen. But no sign of storm damage, either--nor mutiny, nor pirates. No blood.

An eerie stillness hung over all.

He strode to the main companion and cast a glance down into the darkness of the lower deck. Aye, he knew her well even without the name painted on her transom. The Determination, a man-o'war, third-rate, a ship of the line of His Majesty's Britannic Fleet stationed in the West Indies. She boasted seventy-four guns. He had known her captain, too, Roger Baron, as brave a man to command a fighting ship as ever set foot on a quarterdeck. What could have happened here? Where had everyone gone? The ship seemed deserted.

A half dozen marines stood at attention behind him. He turned sharply.

"Search the ship. From stem to stern, from keel to main truck. There must be survivors, find them!"

As the marines scattered to carry out his order, Pettigrew made his way up the companion ladder and ascended to the quarterdeck. As he passed the big wooden wheel, it rotated slowly, creaking forlornly back and forth, at the mercy of the rolling waves. What had happened? Where had they gone? Then he stopped. His eyes fell upon the door under the poopdeck, the door to the stern cabin where Captain Baron had made his home. There was a scroll of paper pinned neatly to the wood by the keen blade of a dagger. The dagger's handle was crusted with gems. They sparkled dazzlingly in the sun.

As Pettigrew jerked the dagger free, his first lieutenant came up behind him. Pettigrew unrolled the paper and scanned it through narrow eyes. After a moment, he breathed out and handed it to this first lieutenant. As that man read, he couldn't contain a startled gasp. Pettigrew nodded slowly.

"It is worse than we feared, Mr. Symmes. Far far worse."

The first lieutenant was white with shock. "But, sir -- the signature. It isn't possible, is it?"

Pettigrew looked at him bleakly. "Possible? No, not possible, Lieutenant. And yet, if it's authentic..."

He fell silent and it was for the first lieutenant to quietly complete his thought. "Heaven help us all."

***

They found the man crouching in the hold. Pettigrew recognized him instantly. Captain Baron's fourth lieutenant Dobbs. But Dobbs' hair had been brown; this man's hair had turned white as snow, Pettigrew surmised, from fear. Nor could they get much from him but a wild incoherent rambling. Whatever had happened, whatever he had seen, had clearly left him unbalanced. His mind was gone. He was insane.

Just the same, Pettigrew was persistent. In the sick bay, he continued to question him. "Dobbs, what happened to the rest of the squadron. Speak to me, man. You were sailing in concert with five other ships, what happened to them? Five ships, Dobbs, where are the rest?"

Even as he asked the question, though, he knew the answer. There had been no storm reported. And yet, of a squadron of six ships of the line, only one remained. His worst fears were realized. And that signature...Dear God, that signature.

Suddenly it was as if a switch had been pulled. Dobbs straightened with a sharp wretched exclamation. He grabbed the captain's jacket, drool spilling from his lips, eyes wide and rolling in his head.

"The sea!" he screamed. "The sea!" Then, for a moment, the man seemed to calm, and a terrible clarity filled his eyes. He looked at them imploringly, pleading with them, begging to be believed. "It ate the ships," he told the horrified gathering. "The sea came alive--and it ate all the bloody ships!"

***

The belaying pin landing solidly across the back of his head, "Bloody Ben" Coffin went sprawling on the tarry boards of the frigate. Chickens scattered, clearing out of his path, their squawking blending raucously with the coarse laughter of the eagerly watching pirates. Then, even as he struggled to rise, the motley throng crowded closer, pressing eagerly around like a tide surging on a lonely beach.

They were a vicious gang, those men, one hundred strong, as mean a lot as could be had between New Providence Isle and the Spanish Main. They crowded the sun-heated waist, shoulder to shoulder; they hung in the rigging and balanced like apes on the yards, silhouetted against the cloudless blue--it didn't matter where, just so long as they could observe their fill of the sport. And sport there would be: Aye, enough for one and all.

Coffin raised himself stiffly on arms and knees, dazedly shaking the spots from his eyes. If there was blood to be seen, it was hidden by the scarlet scarf knotted tight around this head. He slowly lifted his sea-green eyes and cast over the assembled throng. He hadn't seen which one had hit him just then, but it didn't really matter. He'd taken a dozen blows ere that last and he'd long since lost the need to keep count.

Just the same, he growled: "You're brave enough to hit a man when his back is turned, ain't ye now?"

This only brought more laughter from the gloating pirates. Then a voice drifted down from the cross-trees: "Make 'im walk the plank!" Instantly, the idea took hold, spreading like fire, and a chorus took up the cry. "The plank! The plank! Aye, make 'im walk the plank!"

Crack!

Instantly, at the crash of the fired flintlock, all voices fell still. A hundred pairs of eyes turned to regard the figure looking down on them from the quarterdeck rail. Captain Jebediah Scroggs lowered his gleaming pistol, a thread of blue smoke left hanging in the dully stirring air.

He was an astonishing sight, that man, dressed finely in damask waistcoat and neat velvet pantaloons, a thick black belt around his trim waist and a tricorn with plume riding atop his noble brow. He wore a patch over his left eye, from beneath which a long scar climbed his forehead like a bolt of lightning from the sky. His hair hung to his shoulders, and was the colour of the setting sun, a rich fiery orange for which he was sometimes named "Red Jeb" Scroggs. But never to his face. To his face, he was always Cap'n Scroggs. He had killed men for far less.

Aye, and he would likely do so today.

Allowing his pistol to hang from a silk sling over his shoulder, he adjusted the cutlass that swung from a gold-worked baldric crossing his chest. His left hook hand settled on the rail, and he smiled chillingly. An anticipatory murmur rustled through the men below. When Cap'n Scroggs was happy, it meant only one thing. Death was in the offing.

For a space, the scene held its breath. Only a seagull, spiralling patiently above the skeletal masts, dared to break the silence with its lonely call. Coffin too held his breath, glaring up at the man who held his life in his hand. Scroggs relished the moment, savouring it, then gave a slight nod. "The plank!" he agreed.

An explosion of cheers rose at those words. In no time at all, a board was run out through the entry port, its inboard end held down by a brass nine-pounder cannon on its carriage. Then the games began again. A dozen cutlasses sprang at Coffin, forcing him to his feet, then out onto the plank. The wood bowed beneath his weight, but it held just the same. As he reached the end, he stopped and looked down.

With canvas tightly furled, the Devil's Daughter lay hove to, standing nearly still in the rolling swells. There was hardly any breeze, and so no waves to speak of. Coffin gazed down past his flaring-topped boots of fine Spanish leather. The water was clear as glass and, through it, he could discern sleekly gliding shapes with dark, deadly stripes. Tiger sharks. It was almost as if they sensed a meal coming. Once overboard, he wouldn't last thirty seconds.

Grimly he wondered how his fortunes could have changed in such a short time. Only a day before, he had commanded his own fine craft, his own crew of sixty pirates. They had just taken a prize in the Windward Passage, a rich swag off a Guineaman bound for Jamaica. Then they had put into a secret cove in the Grand Caymans, there to careen on the beach, to clean seaweed off the schooner's hull. That had been their mistake.

With the schooner careened on land, they were helpless as babes when the Devil's Daughter rounded the headland. Her cannons bellowed, raking the beach with grape and killing most of his crew with the first salvo. The rest met their end in the hand-to-hand battle that followed. Against the hundred men of Scroggs' crew they hadn't stood a chance. It was a red massacre.

Only Coffin had been kept alive. And only because Scroggs wanted to save him for an especially cruel death. They had been partners once upon a time, sailing in consort, both red-handed followers of the "sweet trade". But they had parted company over the treatment of a girl, a harlot of all things, in a brothel on New Providence Isle. Scroggs had seen fit to strike her for calling him "Red Jeb"; Coffin had shown the man just how that felt. The captain wasn't a man to forgive such an insult, especially when it was administered in front of his own scurvy crew. He had sworn to see Coffin in his grave.

Now it looked like he was to make good on that promise.

The crowd parted and Scroggs, having descended the companion ladder, strode placidly through the gap. He stopped and rested a buckled shoe on the hot black barrel of a cannon. Idly he polished the curve of his metal hook, then crossed his arms. He looked at Coffin, squinting with his one good eye.

"And, so, here it ends. I must admit, it almost seems an anticlimax after all we've seen and done, ye and I. Still, it's a fitting enough end. A seadog fed to the seadogs!" He laughed at his little joke and the ghastly crowd took up the sound.

Coffin stood poised on the bowing plank, his open-necked white silk shirt rippling with the mild breeze. His hair was tied in a tail with black ribbon, and he wore a necklace of shark's teeth that glimmered whitely against the bronze of his chest. Around his waist, there was a green sash. Now, as the laughter died and Scroggs watched with slight puzzlement, Coffin reached into the folds of that sash and drew forth a Spanish doubloon. It flashed in the tropical heat.

In his eyes, there was no sign of the fear which might have been expected under the circumstances. In those sea-green orbs lurked a hidden fire, unquenchable even now, it seemed.

"What's that?" asked Scroggs. "A doubloon? Me thinks a cutlass would be more to yer liking--Aye, a hanger would be more to the point."

More laughter. Then into the following silence, Coffin spoke. His voice was low, yet somehow carried to the farthest beamend.

"Here's what we'll do," he said. "I'm going to flip this doubloon. If she lands heads, then I'll jump off this plank into the water, just as nice as you please. The sharks will eat their fill, and you'll see me die just as you want. And I promise it will be all you ever hoped for. Aye, rare sport indeed."

Scroggs was silent, a wondering smile touching his brow. He seemed mildly amused.

"But if it lands tails, well, then--then I take your ship and everything in her, including the booty from the Guineaman that belonged to me in the first place. Is that all right with you, Cap'n Scroggs? Heads you win, tails you lose."

For a moment, there was more silence. Scroggs didn't know what to think. Had Coffin lost his mind? A soft puzzled murmur worked through the gathering. Perhaps that blow from the belaying pin had done more damage than they thought. But then Scroggs began to laugh. It was a fierce gusty shout that rose clear to the mainmast peak. A single explosion of sound, like the blast of a double-shotted cannon. Then he nodded, the smile still curling his cruel lips.

"Ye always were full of surprises, Coffin, I'll give ye that. Ye almost had me wondering there fer a minute. Ye almost did."

But Coffin hadn't laughed, and he wasn't laughing now. Instead, without another word, he flipped the coin high in the air. It sparkled in the light, tumbling over and over, reaching its peak then falling back down. He caught it on his arm, one hand hiding the coin from view. He paused, then lifted the hand.

A smile touched his lips. "Well, Red Jeb, it looks like I take your ship..."


Next episode: Footfalls at Midnight


Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger Icon



The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.