"Bloody Ben" Coffin in
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Chapter Five - Vanishing Ships
SCROGGS STUMBLED UP from the rolling tide and slumped to his knees in the
supple, warm sand. For a space, he just knelt there on the beach,
savouring the feel of solid land, the scent of palm trees, the sounds of
squawking parrots. He had made it. Oh yes, he had cheated death.
He felt very good.
He climbed to his feet and staggered into the undergrowth.
A short time later, he came upon a stream and a pond with fresh, cool water.
A waterfall cascaded over a high, rocky brink. He drank his fill
and rinsed the salt from his face and laughed just to be alive.
He didn't hear the soft footfalls that crept up behind
him. But, for a moment, he looked up and his good eye fell on something
through the trees on the further side of the pond. A frown darkened
his features. He blinked and rubbed that eye, unable to believe what
he was seeing. But when he looked again, it was still there.
"It's not possible," he mumbled in disbelief. "Not
here, it's not--"
And then he was struck from behind.
He felt very good.
He climbed to his feet and staggered into the undergrowth. A short time later, he came upon a stream and a pond with fresh, cool water. A waterfall cascaded over a high, rocky brink. He drank his fill and rinsed the salt from his face and laughed just to be alive.
He didn't hear the soft footfalls that crept up behind him. But, for a moment, he looked up and his good eye fell on something through the trees on the further side of the pond. A frown darkened his features. He blinked and rubbed that eye, unable to believe what he was seeing. But when he looked again, it was still there.
"It's not possible," he mumbled in disbelief. "Not here, it's not--"
And then he was struck from behind.
Ben Coffin managed to grab a rail even as he felt the Devil's Daughter shudder sickeningly beneath his boots. Damee to Hell! The merchantman was no merchantman. It was a warship and it had just fired a broadside at devilishly close range. Almost at the same moment, the French flag vanished and the Union Jack broke out at the main truck. A King's ship. A trap to catch pirates. And Coffin had fallen for it like a fool.
He cursed himself bitterly.
Now he understood everything. The warship was pulling a drogue off her stern, pots and pans and other junk used to slow her down so she would seem an easy target with a rich cargo. Her gunports had been hidden by a painted canvas draped along her hull. That was the rippling Coffin had noticed before. What had bothered him, but which he had been too slow to realize, was that she was riding too high in the water to be carrying a full cargo.
That mistake would cost them dear.
Already the warship was running out her guns for a second broadside. She boasted forty guns at least, to the thirteen on the Devil's Daughter. Even if Coffin could run out his own nine-pounders in time, they wouldn't stand a chance.
Even now the warship had cut away her drogue. With all sails set, she was far faster than the pirate ship. More maneuverable too. Their only hope was to board her, but her captain was too smart for that. He was standing off, keeping his distance where he could keep hurling round shot into the side of the pirate ship again and again, until she was blown to bits.
And already the deck was a red shambles. Cannonballs had plowed grisly furrows through the men crowded in the waist. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. The air was alive with screams of pain.
"Fire the bow-chaser!" Coffin bellowed, knowing it would do no good. They were all as good as dead. Just the same, the nine-pounder crashed again and Coffin derived slight satisfaction as it blasted a ragged hole in the other ship's forecastle.
But then the warship fired a second broadside; this time, some of the guns were loaded with chain-shot. Overhead, the air shrilled with the sudden screaming as the chain-shot slashed through the rigging and brought down the foretopgallant yards.
Suddenly Buckle was on the quarterdeck, blood running from a wound in his forehead. He waved his now useless hanger, gesturing to the carnage amidships. "Sar, we can't take much more of this."
"Then get us clear!"
"I can't, Cap'n. That bloody bugger is following everything we do. When we tack, he tacks with us. We can't get clear."
Coffin stiffened as another broadside shook the ship. More screams filled the air. More men died.
Then his eyes narrowed. He whirled on the quartermaster. "In my cabin, in the sea-chest..." Hurriedly he told Buckle what to fetch and, moments later, the quartermaster returned bearing a grenade, a small metal ball with a fuse.
"But, sar. What good is this going to do us? That ship has forty guns!"
"That all depends, Mr. Buckle."
Coffin lit the fuse with his pipe, then drew back his arm and hurled the grenade with all his strength. They both watched it arc high into the air between the two ships.
Buckle frowned doubtfully. "Depends? On what, sar?"
A smile touched Coffin's lips. "On where it lands."
And land it did--in the middle of the quarterdeck right next to the wheel. For a moment, Coffin watched as panic broke out on the quarterdeck. Men scattered, diving over the rail. Then--
The grenade exploded. Compared to the destruction wrought by the warship's broadsides, it was a minor explosion, to be sure. But, just the same, it blew apart the wheel and, instantly, the great warship began to heel over as the rudder lost control.
In seconds, the man-o'-war fell behind, its canvas flapping wildly, rigging tangling in a chaos of blocks and halyards. Buckle stared in stunned disbelief.
"Ye did it. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with me own eyes!"
"All I did was buy us time, Mr. Buckle. Let's make the most of it. Get us out of here!"
They needed a bolthole, some isle with a cove where they could hide and make repairs. They had taken so much damage in the bombardment, the deck was littered with fallen rigging, with blasted bits of rail and spars and the wreckage of the foretopgallant yards. They couldn't hope to sail far in this condition.
Then, suddenly, a shout from the maintop: "Deck thar! Fogbank on the larboard quarter!"
Coffin jerked a glass to his eye and trained it on the low wall of fog just now creeping over the horizon. A slight smile touched his lips.
"Mr. Buckle, we're not done for yet. Make for that fogbank!"
Coffin turned and looked ahead. The fogbank was closer now. If they could make it into that white soup, they might yet stand a chance. But would they make it?
It was going to be a close race, no doubt about that.
"Mr. Buckle!" Coffin hollered to the quartermaster in the waist. "Clear everything off the deck. We have to lighten the ship. Everything into the water that isn't nailed down."
Instantly, the crew began hurling overboard everything they could: not just the shattered wreckage left by the bombardment, but kegs and empty chicken coops, hatches and longboats, whatever they could find. Coffin again glanced at the approaching fogbank. It was helping; they were picking up speed. But was it enough?
A glance behind showed him the warship's tall pyramid of sails towering against the sky. She was so near he could make out the expressions of exultation on the faces of the men in the forecastle. A bow-chaser crashed and a hole magically materialized in the spanker sail just over Coffin's head. He cursed again, ducking belatedly.
And then, with startling suddenness, the warship began to fade. It dissolved quickly, ghostlike, as the pirate ship slid smoothly into the thick embrace of the fogbank. In seconds, the fog closed around them, isolating them and the warship was gone. The wind was still blowing, and cottony clouds swept spinning over the deck. Amidships, the crew cheered lustily.
"No noise now!" Coffin shouted, silencing the cheering. "Not a sound, damn ye! I'll flog the first man who gives our position away."
After that, the silence was unnerving. It seemed everyone held his breath, each asking himself the same questions. Where was the warship? Had it followed them into the fog?
Coffin stared into the white nothingness over the ship's stern. He could barely make out the wake of his own vessel before it too was lost in the fog. His ears strained for the creaking of timbers, the rattling of sails. Where was she? Where?
The stillness was eerie. And as he stared into the fog, quite suddenly Coffin had an uncomfortable thought. For two weeks he had been sailing a random course, wasting time, stalling and telling his crew he was taking them to a vast ancient treasure. The girl, Anne Spotiswood, had told him a bizarre tale, how ships were vanishing without a trace and a letter had been found demanding a ransom be paid or more ships would vanish. The girl had used his chart to point out the area where those ships had vanished. Now, it occurred to Coffin that, with all his sailing, he wasn't far off from the area she had indicated.
For just a moment, a chill breeze seemed to blow at his neck. But then he chuckled with self-derision. Ships vanishing without a trace? It was just a tall tale, that was all. He had more important worries to concern him. Aye, far more important--
"Ship on the starboard quarter!"
Coffin spun at the shout, ready to curse the man for making noise. Then he cursed instead to see the warship barely a half cable's length off the quarter, materializing out of the fog, headed for a direct collision with the Devil's Daughter. "God's bones, she's going to ram us!"
Even as he shouted, Coffin knocked the helmsman aside and seized the wheel himself. He threw all his weight against it, fighting to turn the ship out of the path of the man-o'-war. But the warship was far too close. There wasn't time.
He braced for collision, instinctively closing his eyes. Every muscle tensed, ready for the horrible impact, the shattering of the hull, the scream of dying men.
But there was only silence.
No, not silence. For just a moment, he heard a sound like the breaching of a whale, a strange, colossal blowing sound. It was only for a moment. Then silence. In surprise, he opened his eyes.
The warship was gone.
That wasn't possible, he knew it wasn't. There hadn't been time for the man-o'-war to change course, to avoid a collision.
Then, even as he stood there, hands on the wheel, struggling to make sense of this baffling mystery, he heard footsteps race up to the quarterdeck. Anne Spotiswood reached his side panting breathlessly. She was again dressed as the Ratboy, with her metal box hanging from a lanyard around her slender neck.
Frantically, she seized his arm and fought to drag him toward the rail. "Hurry! If you value your life, jump overboard before it's too late!"
He stared at her, blinking confusedly. "Wha--?"
And then, suddenly he heard it again, the same sound as before--as of a breaching whale. But this time, for some reason, it chilled him to the bone.
The sound grew quickly louder, as if some colossal leviathan was approaching from out of the fog.
Coffin found himself standing by the larboard rail, the girl still dragging at his silk sleeve. "Jump!" she cried again.
There was barely time to think. He grabbed her arm and leaped over the rail, down into the cold, rolling sea.
They landed together and sank deep in a column of frothing foam. Then up, up they swam, breaking the surface, side by side in the vast passing shadow of the frigate's barnacled hull.
"Swim!" the girl gasp. "Swim for all your worth!"
"Grab onto my neck," he told her and, as she obeyed, he began to swim away from the pirate ship with desperate powerful strokes. He swam and swam, until his heart was like to burst and his muscles burned like molten lead. Then finally, he paused, treading water, and turned to look back.
Even as he looked, the wind blew away the last of the fogbank. In just seconds, the ocean once again stretched rolling and silken under the blue of a cloudless sky. Coffin could only stare in stunned disbelief.
Of the warship and the pirate ship, there was no sign. The sea lay empty for as far as the eye could see.
As Coffin and Anne Spotiswood treaded water, gazing in
amazement at the stretch of ocean where the two ships had vanished only
seconds before, the pirate realized there was another ship far off on the
distant horizon. Her tall sails showed only as a gleaming bit of
white set against the blue of the sky. Then, even as he looked, the
white winked out of sight as the ship sailed over the horizon and was gone.
Previous episode: "Clear For Action!"
Next episode: The Hidden Lagoon
The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.