"Bloody Ben" Coffin in

The Ship Eaters



A 9-Chapter Pirate Adventure!

by Jeffrey Blair Latta


Previously: Ships vanish on the Caribbean...a single message demands a ransom...Bloody Ben Coffin seizes command of a pirate ship...Scroggs makes a deal with the devil for a moment alone with Coffin and safely reaches an island only to be struck from behind...A mysterious force causes two ships to vanish leaving Coffin and Anne marooned on a secret island...Blackbeard is behind the vanishing ships and Anne was secretly working with him, to pick up the treasure map which leads to the ransom...Coffin steals the map...Discovering an ancient Egyptian outpost, he is captured and taken to see the sungod Ra...

Chapter Seven - Buried in Sand


THEY LED BEN COFFIN TO A BUILDING at the foot of the great Pyramid, a temple it seemed, with a tall pillared portico and hieroglyphics carved into the frieze. Statues of the Egyptian jackal god Anubis crouched on either side of the steps leading up to the wide wooden doors. The doors opened at their approach and the pirate was ushered into a lofty chamber without windows, where flaming braziers threw bizarre elongated shadows onto walls painted with figures done in the distinctly two-dimensional style of the Egyptians.

At the far end of the chamber was a dais. Above this, a round stone emblem of the blazing sun hung suspended. Coffin's captors halted in the middle of the chamber and dropped to their knees, mashing their heads to the floor.

No one apparently cared whether the pirate knelt or not.

Still on his knees, the leader raised his head and called out: "Oh mighty Ra! Sungod and ruler of the Nile! We have found an intruder in the forest! We bring him before you for your judgement! Appear to us, Ra! Appear to us and make your will known to your humble servants!"

There was a long pause as the echo of his cry slowly faded away. Then a breathless hush settled over the scene. Coffin frowned, his green eyes regarding the shrine with interest. What were they waiting for? Did they really expect their sungod to appear?

Then, suddenly, he had his answer. The braziers flickered as if brushed by a wind. One by one the flames went out, plunging the chamber into darkness. For a moment, Coffin considered seizing that moment to make his escape; he doubted he would have a better chance. But then he thought better of it. He wasn't sure he could open the heavy wooden doors before his captors could retake him. Then too, he had to admit, his curiosity was piqued.

Abruptly, out of the darkness, a deep voice boomed out: "Behold the mighty Ra!"

Swoosh!

Just above the dais, in front of the sun emblem, a face appeared in the darkness, surrounded by a fantastic ring of sparks and flickering flame. It seemed to materialize out of nothing, like the spark struck from a flint. The kneeling acolytes moaned with fear. The flame threw a weird light over the face, distorting it and turning it into a vision from hell.

But Coffin knew instantly that this was no vision from hell, nor was it the face of Ra, the sungod. It was Blackbeard himself, employing a trick for which he was famous throughout the Caribbees. Every seaman knew how Blackbeard would place slow-match cord in his hair and beard, which, when lit, produced a truly frightening effect. Normally he used the illusion to terrify his victims, but in this case, the sparking crown had apparently convinced these Egyptians that he was indeed their sungod Ra.

For a moment, the pirate considered unmasking the charade. But then, he glanced down at the Egyptians kneeling abjectly at his feet, the sputtering glow falling on their wide, awestruck eyes--and he knew there was little point. He could never convince them it was a trick. They were well and truly duped.

Blackbeard spoke, his voice amplified by the acoustics of the chamber. "An intruder, is it? The mighty Ra is not pleased. Deliver him into the hands of me minions. They will take care of the bastard! The mighty Ra has spoken!"

With that, the flaming face simply vanished, plunging the room again into darkness. Coffin surmised that Blackbeard had simply raised a canvas before his face to hide the light, then ducked out the back. Seconds later, the braziers again burst into flame. This time, though, the dais was no longer empty. Six villainous pirates had entered in the darkness. Now they rushed forward, nearly trampling the kneeling acolytes and seizing Coffin between them. One of them searched him, finding the rolled up map which he had stolen from Blackbeard. The man stuffed the map in his broad black belt, then touched Coffin's throat with the blade of a jewelled dagger.

"Aye, me beauty," he hissed through black rotting teeth, "the mighty Ra aren't pleased with ye--no, not pleased at all!"

***

A prisoner once again of Blackbeard, Ben Coffin was led back to the fort with his hands bound behind his back. Along the way, his gloating captors repeatedly prodded him with their cutlasses, laughing when he stumbled and fell.

They locked him in a cell beneath the coral stone fort. The cell had a wooden door with a single barred window. Across the corridor, there was a similar door, hands clasping the bars.

When his captors had left him, Coffin called out: "Ahoy the other cell. Who are ye?"

A face appeared behind the bars, dimly lit by a flickering torch in the hall. "Lieutenant Glasspoole of His Majesty's Royal Navy stationed in the West Indies," came the cultured response.

"What ship?"

"The Determination."

The name meant nothing to Coffin but he recalled what Anne Spotiswood had told him about a Royal Navy ship found adrift without her crew. He took a guess. "You were with a squadron of five other ships of the line? Sent to investigate the vanishing ships?"

"That's right. Who are you, sir?"

Coffin knew there was a fair price on his head and he had no intention of revealing his identity to a King's officer. His was a desperate trade, but he hoped to end his days somewhere other than Gallow's Point. He quickly diverted the discussion.

"Unless I miss my guess, they found your ship. There was only a single man aboard her."

Glasspoole nodded. "That would be Lieutenant Dobbs. He went mad and ran down into the hold. When our ship was boarded and we were taken prisoner, he was overlooked."

"Why did he go mad?" Coffin asked. "What happened to the other ships?"

"That we never knew. It happened at night. We were sailing our tack, the weather fine, not a wave on the water. The six ships were in a line; we could see each other by our taffrail lanterns. Then suddenly, the lookout cried out that the foremost lantern had disappeared. We rushed to the rails and, even as we looked, one by one the other lanterns began to disappear. Just like that, as if a man were snuffing out candle flames. And we heard a sound, a weird blowing sound..."

"Like a whale breaching," Coffin ventured quietly.

The lieutenant was surprised. "Yes, sir, like a whale breaching, it was. And it came closer and closer, even as the lanterns went out one by one. Well, Lieutenant Dobbs, he was the only one stationed in the beakhead. He was staring into the darkness beyond the bow, trying to see what had become of the other ships, when suddenly he gave a horrific cry. I never want to hear a sound like that again. Filled with sheer terror. Whatever he saw, I don't know, but it scared his hair white and, before we could stop him, he had dashed down the companionway into the hold.

"After that, the blowing sound stopped and, before we could recover, this tall three-master came alongside, threw on grapples and we found ourselves boarded by a hundred of the fiercest devils I've ever seen. We weren't armed so we couldn't even put up a fight. Since then we've been imprisoned down here. From time to time, that devil Blackbeard comes down and asks if we're willing to join his villainous crew. Of course, we refuse, but he thinks to wear us down."

Coffin considered a moment, then asked: "How many of you are there?"

"Two hundred men."

That was a goodly bunch, to be sure. If Coffin could free them...

Suddenly his breath caught as he heard rapid footfalls pattering down the hall. A moment later, the flawless features of Anne Spotiswood appeared in the barred window.

"So," Coffin snarled at her, "you've come to gloat have you? You're a lying little trollop, that's what ye are!"

"Hush!" she pleaded, casting an anxious glance back the way she had come. Her dark eyes flicked back to his face. "I've come to set you free."

There was the jangling of keys and, with a clank, she yanked open the door. Coffin slipped from the cell, seizing her in a powerful grip. She winced.

"What's your game, girl? Is this more of your tricks?"

"It's no trick, I swear. I'll explain when we reach the parapet. Come, quickly."

"What about these men? Free them too."

"I only stole the key to your cell. I can't get them out."

Coffin cursed under his breath. Too bad she hadn't thought to steal a pistol. He could have blasted the lock off that door.

"Come--quickly!"

She raced ahead on flying feet. He followed her up stairs and out through a door into a courtyard. It was night and the sky overhead was gloriously bearded with glittering stars. Without waiting for him to catch up, the girl sped up more stairs to the fort's parapet. Following, Coffin found her kneeling beside a cannon. Panting from her race, she reached under the carriage and drew something out into the starlight.

It was the little metal box in which she kept her pet rat.

Coffin frowned, baffled. But before he could question her, she explained.

"I didn't lie to you about my father being killed. He was on one of the ships Blackbeard made vanish. Blackbeard knew that, but he didn't care. I was already Blackbeard's girl, but I swore to avenge my father by helping defeat him. I offered my services to the Royal Navy, telling them where his island was. They gave me the map to bring to him, but it isn't real. They aren't going to pay the ransom. There's a squadron hove to just over the horizon waiting for a signal from me. But so long as Blackbeard can make ships vanish, they don't dare come near the island. I know how Blackbeard makes the ships disappear and I was supposed to hide his weapon from him, then signal them to attack the fort."

She opened the metal box and out dropped a small pigeon. It flapped its wings, grateful to be free. Raising the pigeon gently in her cupped hands, she cast it into the air. The pigeon flew up and up, until lost against the stars.

"That was a homing pigeon," she explained. "It will fly high enough to sight the squadron, then fly to the ships. When they see it, they will know it is safe to attack."

Coffin was finding this all a little hard to take in. He stroked his chin, pensively. "All right, supposing I believe you. Then tell me this, just what is this weapon Blackbeard uses to make ships disappear?"

But even as the girl made to respond, figures materialized suddenly out of the night at either end of the parapet. The girl gasped, one hand flying to her lips, and Coffin whirled at the low chuckle that rumbled from the largest of the shadows. Blackbeard stepped slowly into the light.

"Aye, me girl, I knew I could never trust ye. Ye're too clever by half. So the map is a fake, is it? Well, well, I guess the Navy will regret that little deception." His voice dropped to a threatening hiss. "I'm guessing ye might regret it, too."

***

Soon enough, a fearful tableau was arranged on the foreshore. The star-spangled vault overhung a long white crescent of beach. The surf rustled in long curling streamers, lit by green phosphorescence. Blackbeard stood gazing on with big arms folded across his chest, while the girl knelt at his boots, her hands bound with hemp behind her straight, slender back. Meanwhile, two brawny pirates, in striped shirts and tasselled sashes, grimly finished burying Ben Coffin up to his neck in the sand.

When they were done, they strode up the beach to Blackbeard, trailing their spades behind. Blackbeard gently fondled the girl's dark locks. He chuckled with black mirth.

"When the King's ships arrive, me thinks they're in for a surprise," he said. "Ye thought ye hid me ship eater, did ye, girl? Well, ye were wrong. How I do love me decoys. I used a decoy to fool the world into thinking I was dead, and I used a decoy to fool ye. Ye stole a fake!"

Even as he spoke, the surf was rising on the beach. It surged up, white and foaming, around Coffin's head protruding from the sand. He gulped a desperate breath and held it until the water retreated, then gasped for more.

"As for ye," Blackbeard called to Coffin, "I remember ye well. Oh yes, I do. We met once in a tavern in Spanish Town. They called ye Bloody Ben. Ye were drunk on bumboo and probably don't recall but we had us some words and ye threw a punch I remember to this day. When I came to, ye had already set to sea." He slowly nodded. "Aye, I remember that punch well indeed."

Coffin remembered it too.

"Aye, I recall," he said. "I suppose it's too late to apologize?"

Blackbeard just laughed at that, and waved a jewelled hand.

"Don't worry about the girl," he said. "Me crew will see she's well paid for her trouble. Aye, paid in full." Then, with a shout: "Give me regards to Davy Jones!" With that, he turned and he and his henchmen strode off down the beach, dragging the weeping girl along in the sand behind.

Left alone, Coffin barely had time to gulp another breath before the tide again washed over his head. He held his breath until he thought his lungs might burst, until his senses reeled, then let it out explosively as the water once again retreated down the sand. A few more minutes and it would all be over. He had to admit, this was one end he hadn't pictured, buried up to the neck in a beach, waiting for the tide to come in and finish him off. There were certainly better ways to die.

He tried to move but it was useless. The sand locked his limbs in an unbreakable embrace. He couldn't move so much as a finger. He sucked in another breath as the tide washed over his face, this time completely submerging his head to the top of his scarlet headscarf. It seemed to take forever for the water to retreat. When it did, it left him coughing and hacking, barely able to draw breath before the next wave came on.

Then again it covered his head. And again it retreated leaving him coughing and gasping. And then again and again. Finally he thought, This is it. One more wave will finish me for sure.

And yet, even with death staring him in the face, one thought bothered the pirate more than any other. He had the powerful feeling that the girl had lied to him yet again. He didn't know how or why, but he had noticed how she avoided his eyes when she told that last story about working for the Navy to avenge her father's death. Coffin was certain it had been yet one more lie. But, if so, what was her real game? What was the purpose of the pigeon she released? Was there really a Royal Navy squadron waiting for her signal to attack? Were they really sailing into a trap now that Blackbeard knew?

Oh well, it didn't really matter. In seconds, he would be dead.

Even with that thought, the surf rushed up over his head, submerging him deep in the cool, mumbling flood. Underwater, Coffin held his breath as long as his lungs could manage, but even he had his limits. As his senses swam and he started to blackout, he dreamed he felt hands--hands clawing at the sand around his neck--and he wondered again why the girl had lied to him...


Previous episode: The Hidden Lagoon

Next episode: Beneath the Pyramid


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The Ship Eaters is copyright 2001, Jeffrey Blair Latta.