"Bloody Ben" Coffin in
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Chapter Four - "Clear For Action!"
COFFIN FOLLOWED THE QUARTERMASTER down into the bowels of the ship, down
to the orlop deck and into sickbay. He found the dead assassin laid
out on a wooden board. As he remembered, the man was black, bald
and heavily built with powerful muscles. Once again it occurred to
Coffin, if not for the girl, he would very likely be dead.
"Well, Mr. Buckle, what do you have to show me?"
"Just this, sar." Buckle lifted the man's brawny
arm and angled it under the light of a deckhead lantern. There was
a tattoo on the shoulder; at the sight of it, Coffin blew out in surprise.
"Aye, sar. That's what I thought when I first seen
it. It's an eye, just like the eye on the key to that treasure ye're
taking us to." He regarded his captain expectantly. "What do ye think
Coffin didn't know what to think. He'd won the key
in a game of Hazard. The former owner, a drunken seaman, had claimed
it was the key to a fabulous treasure, a treasure on an island guarded
by the lost outpost of an ancient civilization, a treasure guarded by a
monster, yet. Coffin hadn't believed a word of it. Not til
now. Now he began to wonder if there wasn't more to the story than
he had thought. Unfortunately, that didn't change the fact that,
if there really was such an island, Coffin was as ignorant of its location
as the next man. He had lied to the crew, telling them he could take
them there. Instead, he was simply sailing blindly about the Caribbees,
hoping an idea might come to him to get him out of this predicament.
But who was this man? Why had he tried to kill Coffin?
Coffin drew the gold key from his sash and regarded it
nervously. Why indeed?
"Well, Mr. Buckle, what do you have to show me?"
"Just this, sar." Buckle lifted the man's brawny arm and angled it under the light of a deckhead lantern. There was a tattoo on the shoulder; at the sight of it, Coffin blew out in surprise. "Sink me!"
"Aye, sar. That's what I thought when I first seen it. It's an eye, just like the eye on the key to that treasure ye're taking us to." He regarded his captain expectantly. "What do ye think it means?"
Coffin didn't know what to think. He'd won the key in a game of Hazard. The former owner, a drunken seaman, had claimed it was the key to a fabulous treasure, a treasure on an island guarded by the lost outpost of an ancient civilization, a treasure guarded by a monster, yet. Coffin hadn't believed a word of it. Not til now. Now he began to wonder if there wasn't more to the story than he had thought. Unfortunately, that didn't change the fact that, if there really was such an island, Coffin was as ignorant of its location as the next man. He had lied to the crew, telling them he could take them there. Instead, he was simply sailing blindly about the Caribbees, hoping an idea might come to him to get him out of this predicament. But who was this man? Why had he tried to kill Coffin?
Coffin drew the gold key from his sash and regarded it nervously. Why indeed?
He drew off his tricorn hat and used it to fan his sweat-glazed face. It was scant help. A breeze, he thought, I'd sell the devil me soul for a gust of wind.
But then he had another thought, and it brought a curl to his thin cracked lips. "No," he said aloud. "I'd sell the devil me soul for a moment alone with the seadog Ben Coffin, that's what I'd do!"
Aye. The blasted pirate had taken his ship and his crew, had set him adrift with barely enough food and water to last a week. And here it was, one week later, still no land in sight. Now the food and the water were gone and all Scroggs had left was his hate. Ah, but that was a meal in itself. He had lived on hate before now, he had. It had sustained him through many a trial and he was sure it would sustain him now.
Scroggs lay back and closed his eye. The sun baked his head, heating his eyepatch and irritating the scar that ran crookedly up his forehead. Time lost meaning, passing like a dream. It might have been hours or days he lay there. With his eye still closed, he began to murmur--but he wasn't speaking to himself. Not now.
"Aye," he muttered, "ye hear me, don't ye now? Ye hear me well and good and ye knows what I'm going to say. I'll make ye a deal, I will. I'll trade ye me soul for a moment alone with that bloody Ben Coffin. That's all I want, just a moment alone with him. Just a moment alone..."
He was delirious perhaps, but still aware of what he was saying. He had made a deal with the devil, but what of it? His whole life had been devoted to the devil's work, so wasn't it time the bastard returned in kind?
"Me soul, me soul," he mumbled, his eye still closed. "For a moment alone with Ben Coffin..."
He chuckled softly. Then, suddenly, through the veils of exhaustion, hunger and thirst he felt it--the wind stirring gently, cooling the sweat on his brow. A gust teased his fiery orange locks. A wind?
He opened his eye and looked up, blinking dazedly. The sky was banked with white billowy clouds. They hung from horizon to horizon. The longboat's timbers creaked dryly as the prow began slowly to turn with the gentle nudging of the wind. Even without a sail, it began to move through the water. It began to glide through the rollers, riding a tack as surely as if guided by an unseen helmsman.
A villainous grin crept onto Jebediah Scroggs' hawkish features. He began to laugh. It was a frightening sound, that laugh, and it rolled away and away out over the swelling deep.
And from the clouds overhead, rain began to fall...
Unfortunately, they weren't stupid. For a week, he had sailed without raising land. He had claimed he was following a course that would take them to the vast riches he had promised. In truth he had been cruising randomly around the Caribbees, weaving in and out of the island chains, going nowhere, simply hoping a solution might come to him.
And then, like a miracle, it did.
"Deck thar! Sail on the starboard quarter!"
Coffin was on the quarterdeck looking back over the taffrail at the ship's long, foaming wake. Now he whirled at the shout from the maintop lookout. He hurried to the wheel and snatched up a spyglass which he carried in his sash. Training the glass on the horizon he saw a ship just coming into view. Mr. Buckle, the quartermaster, climbed quickly to the quarterdeck and stepped to his side.
Coffin nodded, still training the glass on the distant ship. "A ship, all right. A merchantman without gunports. By the look of her, she's carrying quite a cargo, too. All sails are set to the Royals but she's barely moving through the water. I think she's flying French colours." He lowered the spyglass and snapped it closed. "A French Guineaman, I'd say, en route to Martinique."
Buckle's eyes lit up. "A Guineaman, ya say. Are ye thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I am indeed, Mr. Buckle." In truth, he wasn't exactly. To the quartermaster, the ship offered hope of a rich prize. To Coffin, this was the miracle he had been seeking. The one thing that might take their minds off his mythical treasure island was the promise of captured booty. "She's bound to be carrying ivory and gold."
Coffin's eyes hardened. "Aye, and slaves. If so, we'll set those men free on an island. At least then the poor devils will have a chance with the other Cimaroons."
Buckle looked as if he might object, but then decided not. Slaves could fetch a fair price in their own right, but gold and ivory would suit him well enough.
"Clear the decks for action. Let's go after her!"
The rain had stopped hours ago but it had filled the bottom of the longboat with clear fresh water. He had filled his canteen and drunk until he thought he would burst. All the time, he had been laughing. The sound had been unclean, to be sure.
He stroked and stroked, the oars flashing with silvery spray. The clouds cleared from the sky and sunlight again beat down, but it no longer mattered to Scroggs. He knew he was going to survive. He knew he had already cheated death. He had a date with Bloody Ben, a single moment alone, just the two of them, and he meant to keep it.
Abruptly, he looked up as a new sound fell on his ears. So immersed had he been in his rowing and his thoughts, that he had failed to hear the sound of breakers until now.
The rolling emerald hills of an island rose magically from the blue waters just ahead. He could make out waves rustling on a wide, pale crescent of beach. Palm trees nodded in the breeze, parrots bursting into flight.
Scroggs smiled and began to row again. He broke into a chorus of "Spanish Ladies".
She had no gunports but a single small swivel gun was mounted on her rail. The merchantman had long ago spotted the approaching pirate ship, but, as yet, did not know her purpose. Coffin hoped to avoid a fight, if possible. Usually, just the sight of the Jolly Roger would be enough to make a merchantman strike her colours and heave to.
"Mr. Buckle, run our colours up to the main truck, if you please. Let's let 'em know what we're about."
"Aye, aye, sar."
Soon, the black flag burst out, rippling in the wind, a skull and crossed swords with an hourglass to signify that time had run out for the merchantman. At the sight of it, pandemonium broke out on the deck of the other ship. Coffin could see seamen racing back and forth, frantically manning braces and halyards. But it was useless. Even with all sails set, the merchantman was too heavily laden with her cargo. The Devil's Daughter was handily catching up.
Still, they were trying to run for it. Coffin frowned.
"Mr. Buckle, run out the bow-chaser. Fire a warning shot across her bow, if you please."
A few minutes later, the nine-pounder in the bow crashed inboard on its tackles and smoke billowed thickly over the forecastle. Water exploded in a white fountain just beyond the merchantman's leaping prow. But still she continued to run.
Coffin scowled. For some reason, he felt a nagging sense of unease. He couldn't say what was wrong, but somehow he felt he was missing something. It was too perfect. This helpless Guineaman, wallowing at their mercy, and yet still trying to escape. Why?
"Prepare grapples. We're going to board her!"
Down in the waist, boarding axes, pikes and cutlasses were passed around to the grasping hands of the hundred-man crew. They crowded toward the larboard rail, all eyes eagerly fixed on the approaching prize.
Still, Coffin couldn't decide what was wrong. He raised the glass to his eye and studied the other ship. For the first time, he noticed a strange rippling along her hull just above the waterline. A reflection off the waves? A trick of the light...or...
With a sudden wave of self-disgust, he knew.
But before he could shout out a warning, it was far too late...
Previous episode: Ratboy's Revenge
Next episode: Vanishing Ships
The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.