"Bloody Ben" Coffin in

The Ship Eaters



A 9-Chapter Pirate Adventure!

by Jeffrey Blair Latta


Previously: A lone Navy ship adrift at sea, five others vanished without a trace, with only a message left behind...And on the pirate ship, The Devil's Daughter, Bloody Ben Coffin is made to walk the plank...only to announce he intends to take the ship...

Chapter Two - Footfalls at Midnight


AGAIN THERE WAS A PAUSE. Even the easterly breeze seemed momentarily to hold its breath. Not a sound nor motion broke the spell. It was a weird tableau, to be sure. The pirate frigate the Devil's Daughter hove to in the rolling swells, a man poised on a plank thrust out over the crystal clear sea. Below his boots, tiger sharks circling with hungry conviction. And in the waist a motley throng of pirates.

They were bizarrely dressed, those men, in the mismatched rewards of their bloody pursuit. Red and white striped shirts, navy pea jackets and breeches, head scarves and gold loops in their ears--all sun faded and stained with brine and tar. And here and there, a man was poised on a wooden leg, or fingered an eyepatch. Rewards of a less rewarding colour.

It was a villainous trade they followed, when they chose to go "on the account", with little to expect by way of return but a too brief brush with a few pieces of eight and eventual death at the end of a rope--death by "hempen fever". But they gave little thought to the future, for they were all desperate men, for whom life offered few rewards in any case. And, as Coffin knew, desperate man were by far the most dangerous.

Suddenly Captain Jebediah Scroggs shattered the moment with his fierce explosion of laughter. This time it was some time before he could manage to stop. When he did, he nodded, as if mildly admiring of a worthy opponent.

"Aye, Coffin, full of surprises indeed. If ye think ye can take me ship, go right ahead. But, from where I'm standing, heads or tails, ye're going to feed the sharks. Now enough of these games. The sharks are eager to taste their fill and I for one am not one to disappoint them. Mr. Buckle!"

At the shout, the quartermaster stepped boldly forward. He was a big man, slapped together of sturdy weathered timbers, a bald pate which gleamed like ship's brass fittings under the burning sun. He wore a blue and white striped shirt with short sleeves revealing an anchor tattoo on his powerful biceps. A gold tooth glinted through the thicket of his black beard. He carried a cutlass.

"Cap'n Scroggs, sar."

"Shall we see the prisoner overside?" Scroggs asked rhetorically. "Would ye care to do the honours?"

"I would indeed, sar." Buckle took another step forward, to the entry port, one hand fondling the blade of his hanger. An evil leer rustled his beard. He regarded Coffin standing out over the water. Coffin tensed, feet as wide apart as the narrow board would allow. He cast another glance down at the circling sharks, replacing the doubloon in his sash, then looked back at the quartermaster.

"I would indeed," Buckle said again, and he turned suddenly to face his captain, "but I'm afraid I've made other arrangements!"

In a flash, the curved blade of his cutlass leaped to the lace at Scroggs' throat. Scroggs froze, instantly understanding that he had been tricked, that his very life now balanced on a thread. He eyed his quartermaster narrowly.

"Mr. Buckle, what is the meaning of this, eh? Is this mutiny?"

"Not mutiny, sar, for ye are no longer the cap'n of this ship."

Slowly, carefully, Scroggs turned his head to survey the crowded waist. "And these other men? Are they with ye on this?"

"Aye, sar. Enough of us to serve. There's some of us has decided to try our luck under Cap'n Coffin 'ere. The rest will follow our lead--don't you worry about that. One cap'n or another, it's all the same to these dogs."

"Captain Coffin, is it? Well, well. And just what did Captain Coffin tell ye that led to this monumentous decision?"

Even as they spoke, Coffin reached into the folds of his sash and drew forth a large gold key, the end shaped like an eye with long curving lashes.

"I offered them treasure, Scroggs."

"Treasure, is it? Treasure!" Scroggs laughed scornfully. "And ye fools believed him. The man's a bigger liar than I am!"

"Maybe, sar, maybe he is, at that. But he told me how he come by that key and I believe him. He said he had it off a man found adrift in a longboat off Hispaniola. This fellow, before he died, told him about an island and on that island was the lost outpost of an ancient civilization. They was strange foreign fellows, there guarding a fabulous treasure, and that key is the only way to reach that treasure. And only Cap'n Coffin here knows how to reach that island."

"Then ye're all fools," Scroggs scoffed bitterly. "To believe such rubbish! Bah! There's no treasure, no island, no lost civilization! It's all a trick to save his worthless scurvy hide! A minor trinket and ye dogs have fallen for it!"

"Whatever ye say, sar, but, just the same, we've made up our minds."

"Well then," Scroggs said, and he slowly began to lower his arms, "I guess...so have I!"

There was no warning. He lashed out with his hook hand, knocking the hanger away from his throat, even as bright steel flashed in the other hand. Buckle barely managed to twist aside so that the dagger, aiming for his heart, instead sheathed to the jewelled hilt in his shoulder. Just the same, he stumbled back against the rail, blood staining his striped shirt.

Before any other pirate could intervene, Scroggs jerked the cutlass from his baldric and sprang out through the entry port onto the plank. "Take me ship, will ye!"

Coffin had no weapon and nowhere to run. His back was to the sea and the cutlass flashed as it arced for his throat. He took the only route open to him and sprang desperately out over the water, landing hard against the bulwark, his hands barely catching the rail. The cutlass sang as it cut the air where he had been standing a heartbeat before. Scroggs cursed blackly and whirled on the plank, struggling to keep his feet on the wildly bobbing board. Coffin scrambled up and over the rail.

"A hanger!" he shouted, and the nearest man tossed him a blade. He spun around just as Scroggs surged back in through the entry port, cutlass held high, murder in his eye. They met in a crash and slither of steel on steel, sparks shedding from the impact, bright even in the dazzling sun. Then again and again, blade meeting blade in parry and riposte. The men fell back to give them room. A hundred pairs of eyes watched in grisly anticipation, knowing that they were almost evenly matched and that, no matter the outcome, blood was soon to be spilled.

Then across the tarry boards they danced, blades clashing again and again. No time for planning or strategy, the sheer speed of the display left room only for blind instinct. They were both fighting for their lives.

Coffin ducked as the cutlass swished over his head. He lashed out, Scroggs barely evading the blow. Then more swordplay, slashing and blocking, working their way across the deck into the shadow of the forecastle, men scrambling to avoid their flickering blades, some noisily laying wagers, others cheering from the sides. Chickens scattered underfoot, nearly tripping them both. They climbed the companion to the forecastle, still matching blade to blade. Both men were winded now, streaming sweat, but neither having the advantage. Then, momentarily, Coffin's hanger tangled in the rigging. Seeing his opening, Scroggs leaped in, striking the blade from his opponent's hand. Coffin hurled himself back just in time to evade a second swipe which would have taken off his head.

Scroggs laughed, anticipating victory. "Now me beauty, we'll see whose ship is whose."

He ran at Coffin, thrusting with his blade straight out in front. But Coffin was a heartbeat quicker. He dodged to the side even as he snatched up a handspike from beside a cannon and brought it down hard on the blade. The metal snapped cleanly in two. Scroggs, unable to stop, staggered past and into the rail. Coffin stooped and grabbed up his own cutlass. As Scroggs whirled the steel was already at his throat.

He froze.

For just a moment, his one good eye narrowed craftily, trying to find a way out even so. But then, seeing how things stood, he lowered his hand and hook and nodded.

"Aye," he said. "Quarter."

"Quarter?" Coffin smiled. "Would you have given quarter to me?" But then, after a moment, he too nodded. "Well, Captain Scroggs, like I said before--tails, you lose."

***
Tackles hissed as the longboat was lowered away into the water. It landed with a flat splash, then rocked gently in the rolling swells. Buckle stepped to the rail and tossed a ditty bag down into the sternsheets, the rear of the boat. He cast a burning glare at his former captain, scarlet blood still staining his shirt over his shoulder. Scroggs ignored the look. He climbed down into the boat, trying to maintain as much dignity was he could under the circumstances. Settling on a thwart, he looked up at Coffin and a bitter smile played across his lips. His voice was tight with barely suppressed rage.

"Ye'll regret this, Coffin. Leaving me alive. We'll meet again, I promise ye that. Someday we'll meet and, when we do, we'll have us a reckoning."

"Maybe, Scroggs," Coffin replied without ire. "Maybe I should have fed you to the sharks just the way you would have done to me. But you asked for quarter and so quarter you shall have. I'm setting you adrift in this boat with enough food and water to last a week. If you're half the sailor you think you are, you'll make it to land. If not..." He shrugged without concern. Then he seemed to suddenly recall what it was he held in his hand. He carelessly tossed a brass compass down to Scroggs. "Sink me! I almost forgot to leave you a compass. Well, there you go. Good luck. May you find the fate you truly deserve."

For a moment, Scroggs seemed to consider saying something else, but then, seeing the futility of it, he took up the oars and began to row grimly away from the ship. His former crew laughed and jeered mockingly after him. But Coffin turned and raised a hand for silence. He gestured to Buckle. The quartermaster stepped to his side.

"Quartermaster, I believe you have something for me."

"I do indeed, sar." Buckle signalled to a ferret-faced crewman who turned his back and bent over. The quartermaster unrolled a scroll of paper across his back and handed Coffin a quill and dagger. Accepting the dagger, Coffin cut his own palm and dipped the quill in the blood that ran from the wound, then scrawled his mark at the bottom of the ship's articles.

"Thankee, Cap'n Coffin sar! And welcome aboard."

At that the whole crew let out a gusty cheer, tricorns sailing into the air, cutlasses flashing. Again Coffin signalled for silence, then glanced up at the long red pennant that floated from the mainmast truck. "It's a poor wind we've got," he mused. "Mr. Buckle, set all canvas, if you please."

"All of it, sar?"

"Topgallants, Royals, jib, every bloody scrap. And have the men wet the sails. We'll want to catch every stray breath she breathes. The faster we sail, the sooner we reach our destination, aye?"

He slapped the quartermaster hard on the wounded shoulder as if they were old friends. Buckle winced, but smiled thinly. He studied Coffin with just a hint of doubt in his eyes. "Aye, Cap'n. And what destination would that be, if I may ask?"

"The island we spoke of, Mr. Buckle. Naturally. You didn't think I made that up, did you?"

"I certainly hope not, sar. I certainly hope not."

There was more than a hint of threat in the reply and, for a moment, the two men matched looks, as if trying to read each other's minds. But then Coffin turned and strode to the door of the stern cabin. He paused and spun around.

"And when you're done with the sails, break into the lazaretto. A triple tot of rum to every man!"

Another explosion of cheers greeted this news.

For just a moment, Coffin's eyes settled on a figure seated atop a pyramid of cannon balls at the foot of the mainmast. It was a boy, dressed in pea jacket and breeches far too large for his slight frame, a Navy bicorn perched crookedly atop his head. Around his neck, hung by a lanyard, there was a small metal box with holes in the top. The boy alone did not join in the wild celebration. His head hung down, and he seemed to be talking to the box.

Coffin indicated the boy.

"Mr. Buckle, that boy by the mainmast. Who is he?"

"What? That scrawny pup? Cap'n Scroggs picked him up in Kingston. If ye ask me, we should have left him behind. The boy's mad. We call him the Ratboy on account of he keeps a pet rat in that box around his neck. He talks to him, but to no one else. Like I said, mad."

He made a swirling motion at his temple. For a moment, Coffin considered the slight figure.

Buckle asked, "Ye want I should toss him overboard?"

"Leave him be. He's doing no harm."

"He's doing no good, either."

Coffin turned and yanked open the door to the stern cabin. He paused in the open doorway.

"Inform me when we're underway."

He stepped over the coaming only to pause again as Buckle called out, "A question, Cap'n?"

"Aye?"

"About that Spanish doubloon, sar. I was just wondering--Did it really land tails?"

Coffin smiled wryly. "What do you think, Mr. Buckle--I'd lie about something like that?"

***
Alone in the stern cabin, Coffin stopped for a moment and blew out in a long thin stream. After a space, he looked slowly around. The cabin was broad but low. He had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the deckhead beams. A brass nine-pounder squatted on either hand, with neat piles of round shot piled under the gleaming barrels. Even the captain's cabin became part of the gun deck during a fight at sea.

Sunlight misted gloriously through the salt-stained stern windows, illuminating the bunk beneath and a wooden desk in the middle of the room. Atop the desk, a chart was spread, edges curling, brass dividers set in the centre. None of this, however, held Coffin's attention. Instead, he went straight to the heavy sea-chest in the far corner. Kneeling and unbuckling the leather straps, he lifted the curved lid and peered inside.

He blew out in gratification, then reached in. Lifting out a clay pipe, he charged it with tobacco, lit it using a flint and steel, then took a long lingering puff. He reached in again and, this time, he chuckled as he brought out a crystal decanter of brandy. "Captain Scroggs," he said with honest admiration, "it's a safe bet you didn't tell your crew about this private stock!"

Not bothering with a goblet, he took a stiff drink straight from the decanter. He wiped his mouth hardily on his white silk sleeve. In the distance, he heard the sudden thunder of unfurling canvas, the rattling of blocks, the buzzing of halyards. On his knees, he felt the deck tilt as the Devil's Daughter heeled to the sudden press of the wind. Timbers creaked as they took the strain. He rose and looked out the stern windows. He blew out again, a long luxurious exhalation. Already a creamy wake extended out behind as the ship got underway.

Aye, he thought, with satisfaction. How quickly things could change. In twenty-four hours he had lost his ship and almost lost his life, yet here he was, once more the captain of a pirate crew. Fate was strange indeed.

Only one thing marred the pleasure of the moment. Only one little detail. The knowledge that he had lied about the treasure.

He had won the key in a game of Hazard from a sailor in Nassau. The sailor had indeed told a story about a lost outpost of an ancient civilization, foreign guardians on an island who watched over a fabulous treasure. He even claimed the treasure was guarded by a monster, of all things. But that man had been three sheets to the wind, drunk out of his mind, and nothing he said could be believed. The key though was made of gold and so worth enough for a wager.

For a moment, Coffin frowned as he considered his present predicament. How long could he sail before the men would suspect the truth? Sooner or later, they would expect him to raise this mythical treasure island. And when he failed to do so? What then, eh?

Unconsciously he nodded his head, still puffing on his pipe. Aye. What then?

***

Coffin woke suddenly in the night. He lay there for a moment wondering what had roused him. Around him, the ship creaked and groaned, water rustling along the hull. From the forecastle, eight bells rang out, signalling the start of the middle watch. Midnight.

Then, he heard it.

The door to his cabin creaked as it opened and, for a moment, he could make out the distant sound of fiddle music and drunken laughter from below decks. The rum was keeping the men happy, that was something at least.

With his eyes tight shut, he heard the door close again. Then boards creaked softly as footsteps stealthily approached the bunk where he lay. Grimly he tensed, ready to leap up, preparing for a fight. Under his sheet, his hand clenched around the hilt of his cutlass. He took no chances. He always slept with his blade.

Closer and closer the creaking came. He forced himself to pretend to be asleep, breathing easily, regularly. Closer, then closer still...

Suddenly the footsteps stopped. There was the creak of the door opening again. Frantic movement followed as the intruder--the first intruder--ducked hurriedly behind the desk. The door opened, then closed. For a moment, there was silence. Coffin was baffled. Two intruders? What strange mystery was this?

Again the boards creaked. Now the second intruder was sneaking up on his bunk. Again, Coffin tightened his grip on his hanger. But this time, he knew, there were two men in his cabin. Two men who were apparently working separately.

And then he heard a sound that chilled his blood. The rigid snap of a pistol being cocked...


Previous episode: Shark Bait

Next episode: Ratboy's Revenge


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The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.