"Bloody Ben" Coffin in
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Chapter Six - The Hidden Lagoon
WAS WITH THEM BOTH. Having abandoned ship in the middle of the ocean,
by rights Ben Coffin and Anne Spotiswood should have been as good as dead
men. If the sharks didn't get them, exhaustion soon would have.
But then Coffin recalled ordering his crew to cast overboard
extra weight just before they entered the fogbank. Immediately, with
the girl still clinging to his neck, he struck out in what he hoped was
the right direction. Even so, it was a near thing; his strength had
nearly given out by the time he came upon a longboat, cast overboard.
She was sunk nearly to the top of her gunwales, but using Anne's bicorn
hat, they were able to bail her out enough to serve.
They climbed aboard, both dripping with briny wash, puffing
and out of breath. Coffin broke off a rowing bench and with this
he grimly began to dig at the blue swells alongside.
One direction was probably as good as the next, but he
made up his mind. He headed in the direction taken by the mysterious
ship that had vanished over the horizon.
But then Coffin recalled ordering his crew to cast overboard extra weight just before they entered the fogbank. Immediately, with the girl still clinging to his neck, he struck out in what he hoped was the right direction. Even so, it was a near thing; his strength had nearly given out by the time he came upon a longboat, cast overboard. She was sunk nearly to the top of her gunwales, but using Anne's bicorn hat, they were able to bail her out enough to serve.
They climbed aboard, both dripping with briny wash, puffing and out of breath. Coffin broke off a rowing bench and with this he grimly began to dig at the blue swells alongside.
One direction was probably as good as the next, but he made up his mind. He headed in the direction taken by the mysterious ship that had vanished over the horizon.
"All right, girl. Out with it. How did you know that was going to happen? And what did happen? Where happened to those two ships?"
The girl raised her dark eyes, lashes wet, and sniffed miserably. She still wore the metal box around her neck. Coffin could hear slight noises that told him her rat had survived their swim. He wondered why she didn't just get rid of the thing.
"I didn't know that was going to happen," she insisted. "I swear I didn't. But I told you how ships have been vanishing. You wouldn't believe me, remember? When that man-o'-war disappeared just before it would have collided with us, I knew whatever had taken those other ships had taken it as well. And it wasn't hard to guess we would be next."
Coffin considered her explanation a moment, studying her narrowly. Then he had another thought: "But why did you save my scurvy hide?"
This time the girl turned her eyes to stare out over the wind-ruffled waves. She squinted and shrugged. "You could have betrayed me before. You could have told them I was a woman, or you could even have had me thrown to the sharks. Why didn't you do that?"
To that Coffin had no reply. He continued to study her a moment longer, then grunted noncommittally and grimly returned to his rowing.
Still, he wasn't one to complain. Any port in a storm...
Soon, they found themselves rising and falling on white crested breakers. A final surge and the longboat swept up and onto a pale crescent of sand. The two castaways climbed from the boat and Coffin dragged the craft out of the surf, tying the painter to a palm tree on the edge of the beach.
Then he turned and surveyed their surroundings.
It was a beautiful tropical paradise, that was the truth. The air was heady with the rich scents of ripening mangoes and coconuts, the bedlam squawking of parrots and the screeching of gulls. A fresh breeze blew off the ocean, easing the kiss of the hotly beating sun, and cooling the sweat drying on his brow. The sand underfoot was soft as silk and warm as heated honey.
For a moment, the pirate's sea-green eyes lighted on the girl, kneeling in the sand, wet and bedraggled beside the longboat. A look came into those eyes. He studied her for a space, with a silent predatory gaze. Aye, a tropical paradise, indeed. Straightening his scarlet headscarf and clearing his throat, he turned to look at the emerald jungle.
"We'll have to set up a lean-to," he called to the girl. "Collect food and water. That shouldn't be hard in this place." He glanced up at the ripe coconuts festooning the palms, shielding his eyes against the sun. "There's plenty to be had, or my name isn't Bloody--"
The blow was unexpected. It struck him hard on the back of the head, just above his black-ribboned pigtail.
"...Bennn..." he said, and slumped unconscious to the ground.
He was baffled. Why had she hit him? They were cast adrift on an uncharted isle. Where could she run? Well, he was soon going to find out. Her tracks led plainly off down the beach. Grimly massaging the lump under his headscarf, he began to follow them.
The white sand led to a rocky headland of rough coral stone. Here the trail vanished, but Coffin clambered up to the top. There he stopped and stared, his breath blowing out in stunned surprise.
He was looking down into a placid blue lagoon. Across the water, on the opposite shore, reared the coral stone ramparts of a fantastic fort. She was well built, her crenellated battlements abristle with cannon, walls thick and tall. And overhead, a black pirate flag floated defiantly, her device a skeleton holding a spear and hourglass, with a scarlet bleeding heart dripping three drops of blood. At the sight of that Jack, Coffin felt a vague uneasiness. He knew that Jolly Roger from somewhere--but where?
At anchor in the lagoon was a tall three-masted ship. Her sails were furled and she nudged at her cable with the slight press of the breeze. On her high transom was a name and, at the sight of that name, Coffin suddenly remembered where he had seen that flag before. And he recalled too what Anne Spotiswood had told him: how a ransom note had been found claiming credit for the disappearing ships, a note signed by a name that filled the Admiralty with dread--a name that they said wasn't possible.
The ship was the Queen Anne's Revenge. Coffin knew what man had captained her--at least until the year before when he had met his bloody end in Ocracoke Inlet, his head severed from his body. No, it wasn't possible. But if it were true, if he was still alive...
Even Coffin felt a chill touch his spine.
He approached the fort keeping well hidden in the trees. He saw two guards atop the ramparts, dressed in striped shirts, loops in their ears, both armed with muskets and cutlasses. They obviously weren't expecting trouble and neither was paying attention as he slipped into the shadow of the coral stone walls.
He found an unlocked door and stealthily ducked inside. The room was illusively lit by sunlight playing through slotted windows in the far wall. Immediately his nose was assaulted by the acrid stench of gunpowder. Looking around, amongst the shadows he found himself surrounded by kegs and sacks of the stuff. Muskets hung on a rack on the wall. The magazine. For a moment, Coffin regarded the gunpowder with a strange pondering air, one brown hand pensively stroking his chin. He was still carrying a small brass telescope in his sash. He drew it out and a smile touched his lips.
Then too it occurred to him there might be another reason for their complacency. Whoever commanded this fort, that man also held the power to make ships vanish without a trace. It was a mystery how this was done, but done it was. Presumably no ship could come near the island without suffering such a fate.
As indeed had the Devil's Daughter and the man-o'-war which had pursued her.
Suddenly, passing an open window, Coffin heard a deep, booming laugh. It was a familiar sound, and it landed on his ears like the chill spray off a curling breaker.
He crept up to the window and peered in. His worst fears were realized. He was looking into a small room with a desk and chairs. Against one wall were shelves stuffed to bursting with seacharts. A lantern hung from the beams overhead and its light cast a soft glow over the scene. In one chair, the girl, Anne Spotiswood, sat with a slim, straight back, still dressed as a boy except without her bicorn. She no longer wore her ratcage around her neck.
Towering over her was a powerful figure of a man. He was a pirate captain in the truest sense, richly dressed in velvet waistcoat and baggy pantaloons, a baldric across his chest which sported no less than three brace of pistols. A tricorn rode atop the scarf around his brow and his boots were polished and flared at the tops.
But none of this held Coffin's attention. His eyes were drawn by the heavy black beard done in black ribbons that hung down the man's deep chest. Only one man in the Caribbees wore such a beard. A man dead a year ago in Ocracoke Inlet.
Under his breath, Coffin breathed: "Blackbeard!"
Aye, Blackbeard it was. A name to strike terror in the stoutest heart. So, he was the mastermind behind this mad scheme of vanishing ships and ransom. No wonder Anne had said the name filled the Admiralty with dread. Well it might.
Somehow, evidently, Blackbeard had fooled them all. He must have had another man stand in for him in Ocracoke Inlet. After all, that final battle wasn't fought aboard his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, but on a lesser craft. Obviously he wasn't prepared to sacrifice his tall three-master for the sake of his deception.
But now Coffin strained to listen to what they were saying.
"Ye've done good, girl," rumbled Blackbeard. "God's blood, ye're lucky to be alive. I didn't know ye were aboard that ship. How did ye come to be sailing on her anyhow? When me men looked for ye at the Full an' By Tavern, ye were nowhere to be found."
"I was hit on the head and taken aboard a pirate ship," the girl explained quietly. "I tried to force the captain to take me here, but he overpowered me."
Blackbeard nodded slowly, then turned and took up a scroll off the desktop. He unrolled the parchment and studied its contents a moment. He nodded again. "Still, ye brought me the map, that ye did. They've paid me ransom and all I have to do is go and get it." Then he looked at her closely and squinted with one eye. "That is, so long as no one saw ye pick up the map and no one followed ye here."
The girl quickly shook her dark head. "They left the map on the jetty where you said, and I went in disguise and picked it up. No one saw me and no one followed me."
So, Coffin thought bitterly, the little trollop had lied to him. All along she had been working with Blackbeard. The story about her dead father was false. He cursed himself for a fool. But then he had another thought. Why hadn't she told Blackbeard about Coffin's presence on the island? He frowned and leaned closer.
Now Blackbeard stepped to the girl and set a heavy hand on her raven black hair. Jewelled rings sparkled on his fingers. He stroked her gently, and Coffin's jaw unconsciously tightened.
The more he thought about her betrayal, the more bitter he became. Now to see this devil place his hand on her...
Before he knew what he was about, his fury overcame his sense. He sprang up and hurtled over the sill full into the midst of the astonished company. Blackbeard whirled with a curse, dragging a cutlass from its sheath and bellowing: "Avast! What's the meaning of this?"
But Coffin had no intention of matching blades with the legendary pirate captain. Instead, he snatched up the map from off the desk where Blackbeard had set it and, spinning, he leaped back out the window. It was all over in a heartbeat. In his wake, Blackbeard could only holler a string of bloody curses, as Coffin made good his escape from the fort.
Finally he came upon a small pond with a high rustling waterfall. Here he stopped to catch his breath and slake his thirst. He had no way of knowing that this was the very same pond where his enemy, Jebediah Scroggs, had stopped before being struck on the head.
He knelt down on the opposite bank from where Scroggs had drank, and so saw no sign of the other man's visit in the damp earth. He rinsed his face and cupped the sweet liquid to his famished lips. He wiped his mouth on his silk sleeve. Then he rose and turned--and gaped in disbelief.
Just as Scroggs had seen what rose impossibly in a glade beyond the trees, now Coffin too saw it, and blew out in amazement. Dumbly, he stumbled through the green vegetation, toward the sight, finally breaking out into a clearing. Again he stopped and stared.
"It's not possible," he muttered, unconsciously repeating Scroggs' very words. "Not here it's not."
And yet it was there. An Egyptian pyramid. It rose from the jungle like some weird dream, palm trees swaying at the wide base, the sun gleaming from its sloping sides. On the Spanish Main, Coffin had seen similar pyramids built by the Aztecs, but those were step pyramids. This was clearly an authentic Egyptian pyramid, with flat flanks. Seeing it, he suddenly recalled the key in his sash and the story of an island guarded by the lost outpost of an ancient civilization--an outpost guarding a fabulous treasure, a treasure guarded by a monster.
"Sink me!" he breathed. "I've found the island, after all."
Even as he stood there, he heard the snap of a branch from behind. He whirled, snatching up his cutlass, dropping into a fighting crouch. From the tangled jungle stepped a dozen white robed figures. All had black skins and bald heads. They were armed with gleaming muskets and Coffin immediately saw he didn't stand a chance. Grimly he lowered his cutlass and straightened.
Two of them stepped quickly forward and seized him, taking away his hanger. The sleeve of one rolled up enough to reveal a tattoo on his muscular arm. Coffin saw it was identical to the eye-tattoo on the man who had attacked him aboard the Devil's Daughter. Identical too to the eye on the gold key in his sash.
One of the men, the leader evidently, gestured in the
direction of the pyramid. "He is an intruder," he commanded in English.
"Take him to the sungod. Take him to Ra!"
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Next episode: Buried in Sand
The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.