~ Letter of Marque ~
By V. Anderson
Disclaimers: the characters in this "uber alt" story are mine. If they happen to resemble a couple of women on X:WP, I can't help that--it seems they have crept into my consciousness as the archetypal lesbian icons. That being said...yes, there's consensual sex between adults of the same gender. Find another story if you don't like it. Go on! Shoo! There's also some violence and cussing...OK, quite a bit, in fact...there's some unwanted sexual advances...some blood and guts...some instances of slavery...knife fights...sword fights...walking the plank....If you're squeamish you might skip this one.
This story is the first in a long serialized historical pirate saga. I don't imagine it will ever really end, so for those of you who don't like unfinished stories, you will continually be disappointed...can't be helped. I'll be sure to put a date everything so you (and I!) don't get confused. Letter of Marque is the first installment. That being said, history itself is subjective, while geography is not. I have remained as true to both as possible within the context of my plot and character development, but I do play fast and loose on occasion so don't shoot me.
A few house keeping items (it's hard to put footnotes on a Web page, so I'm making notes here): Behn, Aphra. (1688). Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave. [WWW Document] URL http://eserver.org/fiction/oroonoko/
If you're viewing this on a web site other than mine (http://xenascope.violetlizard.com), go to mine if you want to see my experiments with Photoshop. I've combined images from the era with images of our two favorite gals. No copyright infringement is intended, either in image or word. I'm not making any money, so please don't sue. Any feedback, good, bad or indifferent is appreciated. Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Dudley, Esq; Captain General and Governor General in Chief, in and over Her Majesties Provinces of the Virgin Islands.
To Capt. Erin Skinner, Commander of the Argonaut of Liverpool.
Whereas Her Sacred Majesty ANNE by the Grace of GOD, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, QUEEN, Defender of the Faith, Etc. Hath an Open and Declared War against France and Spain, their Vassals and Subjects. And Forasmuch as you have made Application unto Me for Licence to Arm, Furnish and Equip the said Argonaut in Warlike manner, against Her Majesties said Enemies, I do accordingly Permit and Allow the same; And, Reposing special Trust and Confidence in your Loyalty, Courage and good Conduct, Do by these Presents, by Virtue of the Powers and Authorities contained in Her Majesties Royal Commission to Me granted, Impower and Commisionate you the said Erin Skinner, to be Captain or Commander of the said Argonaut, Burthen Eighty Tuns or thereabouts: Hereby Authorizing you in and with the said Argonaut and Company to her belonging, to War, Fight, Take, Kill, Suppress and Destroy, any Pirates, Privateers, or other the Subjects and Vassals of France, or Spain, the Declared Enemies of the Crown of England, in what Place so ever you shall happen to meet them; Their Ships, Vessels and Goods, to take and make Prize of. And your said Argonaut's Company are Commanded to Obey you as their Captain: And your self in the Execution of this Commission, to Observe and Follow the Orders and Instructions herewith given you. And I do hereby Request all Governors and Commanders in Chief, of any of Her Majesties Territories, Islands, Provinces or Plantations, where the said Captain or Commander shall arrive with her said Vessel and Men: And all Admirals, Vice-Admirals and Commanders of Her Majesties Ships of War, and others, that may happen to meet her at Sea; Also all Officers and Subjects of the Friends or Allies of Her said Sacred Majesty, to permit her the said Captain or Commander with her said Vessel, Men, and the Prizes that she may have taken, freely and quietly to pass and repass, without giving or suffering her to receive any Trouble or Hindrance, but on the contrary all Succour and Assistance needful. And this Commission is to continue in Force for the Space of Six Months next ensuing (if the War so long last) and not afterwards. Given under my Hand and Seal at Arms at Boston the Thirteenth Day of July: In the Second Year of Her said Majesties Reign, Annoque Domini, 1703.
By His Excellencies Command,
Robert Addington, Secr.
John Dudley stood on the deck of the Argonaut, a scowl firmly etched into his features. Around him, a stiff breeze rippled the canvas of the lowered sails and the surface of the water around the anchored ship. Over the deck rail in front of him, he could see the island from which he had just come-at that moment, it seemed terribly far away. He had undertaken boarding this ship at considerable personal risk, and once here was not treated in a way in which he was accustomed. Damn the Queen anyway, he thought to himself. If she wants these cutthroats at her service, she can damn well come over here and deliver these Letters herself. As more and more of these deliveries fell under his jurisdiction, Dudley was uniformly obliged to replace servants who could not get past basic introductions before getting keelhauled by whichever marauders were receiving the Queen's favor on that day. In Dudley's mind, it was sinful to offer these common criminals the freedom to pillage at will, with no thought to justice or consequences. Still, with the war going on, England needed able-bodied seamen willing to die in exchange for all the Spanish and French treasure they could plunder. And what better place to recruit said men than from the existing English pirates?
Still, it irked Dudley to have to fawn over scoundrels such as these. He should have stayed in Cornwall. A minor player in the English royalty hierarchy, he had come to the Virgin Islands to seek greater fortune. The "John Dudley luck" apparently managed to cross great oceans, and he had yet to make the money he sought following seven years of failed sugar cane, failed pineapple, failed coconuts and the abysmal "Lord Dudley's Tropical Elixir." After each of these ventures, he was forced to write letters to his older brother, asking for more money, a thing he was loathe to do, and as years passed, his scowl grew more and more permanent. This did nothing to enhance his features. Under his wig, his greasy black hair was pulled into a severe ponytail, and tied with a black ribbon. Without the wig, his face closely resembled that of a hawk--sleek, angular, and with a beak-like nose. Having stood in the sun today for an hour longer than normal, the curls of his hairpiece were rapidly drooping across his face. In an effort to speed up the current goings-on, he changed the scowl of contempt to an expression of extreme boredom. To complete this affectation, snuff was essential, and he took the opportunity to inhale a large amount into his nose, and dab its sweaty surface with a dirty lace handkerchief. One would think that a representative of the Queen would act and dress accordingly, but this was not so in John Dudley's case. He was of a mind that while forced to serve the crown on this godforsaken island, he could do as he damn well pleased. He did not directly disobey orders; on the contrary, he was ever vigilant to make sure that members of the royal family and his superiors knew exactly how quickly he responded to any command. His personal hygiene, however, was of a kind where the local fishmonger could smell him coming before actually seeing his face; that is, should Lord Dudley deign to walk into the market. Additionally, he instructed his servants to conserve, among other things, water, and wash clothing only sparingly. Still, while his clothes were often dirty, he did manage to put together a look reminiscent of the best fops of his day with layer upon layer lace and silks in every imaginable color.
Today, he had outdone himself by wearing a peach silk jacket, 3 kinds of lace stockings, off white silk pants and gold buckled shoes. He had dressed with special attention to detail since he himself was to deliver the Queen's Letter of Marque to another 'well deserving' sea captain. The only thing he liked about the contact he had with men of this sort was that it allowed him to also deliver one or two well placed bribes, thus ensuring protection for himself and his property. Much to his surprise, however, today was turning out quite unique. For one, this ship's crew could not be bribed to put in a good word for him, and he had spoken at length with several of these men before meeting the captain. Too, he was surprised to find that the captain was not, in fact, the usual scarred sea dog, but a very attractive woman. He did not think he would ever have an opportunity to meet the enigmatic Erin Skinner, yet here she was in front of him, closely and thoroughly studying the Queen's Letter of Marque. While he heaved yet another sigh at the length of the proceedings, he took a moment to surreptitiously observe her. He had to admit that although she was a notorious scourge, she was rather attractive in a primitive way. She stood barely higher than his shoulder, and he placed her around five and half feet tall. Her reddish blond hair was long, and pulled back under a long green silk kerchief. He sensed that under her dark blue linen pants and loose fitting white cotton shirt, she carried a slim and very muscular frame. The kerchief only served to enhance the color of her eyes; eyes that had flashed a sea green spark in his direction when he climbed aboard her vessel. Completing her ensemble were a pair of highly polished black knee boots, and a scabbard hung about her slim waist baring a very lethal looking sword. Yes, all in all, she was quite fetching, and he reckoned she'd be a hellcat in the sheets. He forgot himself so much as to leer, when she finally finished with the Letter, and looked up at him grinning.
Ahh, he thought to himself, the Queen has her hook, line, and sinker. But Lord Dudley misinterpreted Capt. Skinner's demeanor. The grin was not elation, but mirth, and her laughter bubbled up from deep within her until she was doubled over in a full belly laugh.
"I fail to see any humor in this situation, Miss Skinner," he commented drolly.
A very swarthy, red haired crew member stepped forward wielding a nasty looking knife that he produced from the lining of his blue coat. He advanced within inches of Lord Dudley and stuck the knife under the startled Governor's nose, "I'll thank ye to call the Captain by her title whenever yer aboard this vessel, mate."
Capt. Skinner laid a calming hand on the crewman's arm, still wiping tears of laughter from her eyes and continuing to chuckle as she said in a slight Irish accent, "I'm sure Lord Dudley meant no disrespect, Mr. Morgan. Kindly put away your blade."
First mate Will Morgan did just that, but stood menacingly close as Capt. Skinner addressed her guest. "Lord Dudley, or should I call you Governor? No matter. I do apologize for my outburst, but you see, this letter has got to be a wee joke, has it not? For one, I did not petition the crown for anything."
"To my knowledge, it is not a joke madam...urr, Capt. Skinner. This is a genuine offer, and I suggest you take it."
Mr. Morgan piped up again, "I'd suggest you shut yer mouth, laddie, before we take yer whole bloody ship and throw everyone on it overboard."
Lord Dudley paled visibly, and turned to the seemingly levelheaded Capt. Skinner for reassurance. None was forthcoming, since the captain appeared deep in thought. She turned away from Lord Dudley, and took several paces toward the rail of the quarterdeck on which they all stood.
"Mr. Morgan," she called after a moment, "a word with you." The man complied and followed his captain to the railing. He knew she wished a private conference, and he stooped noticeably in order to better hear her whispered words.
"Yes, Cap'n. Shall we tump this scurvy dog overboard?" he said with a gleam in his eye.
Capt. Skinner chuckled to herself, then replied, "No, Will. Measures like that are not needed...at least, not yet. However, given time, I'm sure Lord Dudley would be under foot so much as to require at least a good lashing." Will Morgan smiled at the captain's joke, before she continued. "This letter seems genuine enough. Essentially, the Queen, in all her 'wisdom', is asking me, well us, to trade our pirate titles for those of privateers, and pillage the likes France and Spain for God and country."
"Ya don't say," said Morgan, rubbing his chin between his thumb and forefinger. "And now why would we want to cut our usual booty by a t'ird?"
"Why, indeed, Will. I'm thinkin' it might have somethin' to do with my Da."
Will nodded, "Bit o' the guilty conscience, eh?"
"Seems the most likely explanation." Captain Skinner thought on the subject a bit more, while Will Morgan waited patiently. He had every faith in his captain to make a decision that would have only the best interests of the Argonaut and her crew in mind. She continued, "Though the loss of English goods would not be a bad thing necessarily. The Queen has provided that all loyal British subjects offer us...now how did she put that? Oh yes, 'to permit her the said Captain or Commander with her said Vessel, Men, and the Prizes that she may have taken, freely and quietly to pass and repass, without giving or suffering her to receive any Trouble or Hindrance, but on the contrary all Succour and Assistance needful.' We could pillage at will without thought to the yardarm."
Will simply nodded. He'd known Erin Skinner long enough to know when she was mulling things over and thinking out loud, and when she truly wanted his input. She continued in this vein for a while, weighing the pros and cons, "We don't want to be beholdin' to that witch that holds the crown, but who's to say we'd owe her a damn thing when it was all said and done." Seeming to come to a decision, Erin turned to Will and said, "Since this will affect the men's livelihood, I'll not make the decision alone. Get out the box, Will."
Morgan had hoped that this is what the captain would decide to do. Himself, he was against the whole idea, but it was not his place to go against the captain's wishes should she sign her name to the Letter. 'Getting out the box' meant that the captain was putting the matter before the crew for a vote. Each man carried with him a few small wooden discs; some painted green and some red. These bore no insignia, nor anything to give away the owner. They were a code among members of the crew, known only to the crew of the Argonaut, and had many uses. One such use was to cast a vote. Putting a green disc into the box meant a vote of yes and adding a red disc meant no. In this way, each crewmember could not only cast his or her vote, but also do so anonymously. Having lived a life under the thumb of English rule, the very Irish Capt. Skinner set up the system as a way to maintain fairness between herself and the crew she commanded. It helped breed loyalty among her men because they each felt they had a stake in the outcome of many of the captain's decisions. She never counted the discs herself, but allowed the men in groups of three to rotate a turn as decisions were made this way. Be that as it may, the box was only rarely taken out. The captain kept a firm hold over the ship, and brooked no quarrel when it came to basic ship rules or 'Articles.' The language of the Articles was simple and clear-obey the captain, do not steal from or fight with shipmates, do not have open fire any place below deck, and do not "meddle" with a woman without her consent. Punishment for infractions was the whip, marooning or whatever judgement deemed appropriate by the entire crew. Each man signed or made his mark on the "Argonaut's Articles," and this was kept in a chest in the captain's cabin. Rare was the day when Capt. Skinner was forced to remind any man of that oath.
The captain also kept a very clean vessel, with good provisions and excellent clothing. The latter was, in fact, quite a draw for crew members since most pirate captains made men forage for their own clothing. Out at sea for weeks at a time, the clothing often became ragged and held no protection from the sun. But Capt. Skinner always made sure that each man wore suitable pants, shirt and shoes, and this alone made her crew feel proud to serve aboard the Argonaut. Many of the crew had taken to wearing the captain's signature colors of dark blue and white; even the ship's flag, a skull and cross bones, flew on a field of dark blue. Captain Skinner never made any of this 'official,' but did not discourage the use of similar colors since it seemed to maintain at least at outward appearance of cohesiveness.
Will turned to the men, and searched until his eyes fell on Jonas Willowby, the oldest man onboard the Argonaut, and third in command. "Jonas!" he shouted.
"Aye, sir," Jonas replied from his position on the main deck.
"We'll be needin' the box," Will stated. Jonas nodded, and went below deck in search of the item.
"Box?" Lord Dudley squeaked out, "What is the box?"
Will and Erin exchanged amused looks before Erin turned to Lord Dudley and said, "Well, sir, your visit has been quiet a pleasant surprise. Since you've come aboard, there's no need for us to raid Road Town to cut out your heart; we can do it right here. We keep the hearts of all our conquered in a special box."
Lord Dudley paled visibly and began to frantically look left and right for any possible escape, while the Argonaut's crew erupted into gales of laughter. The laughter got louder when Jonas returned moments later, a small 2-foot by 2-foot box in his hand, and Lord Dudley actually fainted in a dead heap on the deck.
Of all the places in the world to spend her life, the rolling deck of the Argonaut was the last location Erin Skinner ever envisioned when she was growing up in Dublin. Now at age 27, she captained a pirate ship and commanded a crew of 50 men--never in her wildest dreams. Yet, here she was, standing on the quarterdeck, issuing orders that would take the Argonaut farther and faster, cresting and tumbling over wave after ocean wave. And even though her girlhood dreams never included her ship or her men, there truly was no place else she wanted to dwell. The Argonaut was home.
As the ship left the shelter of Tortola's waters, Erin could feel the wind rush through her hair like the fingers of a lover, and the sun press its warmth upon her back. The rough planks beneath her feet helped her keep her balance as the ship rose and fell at the sea's whims. Above the sound of the wind, Mr. Morgan was shouting orders to the crew, trimming the sails to get the most speed and agility from the vessel. Erin knew she had no finer first mate, and no one on her ship more loyal, than Will Morgan. It was he who championed her as captain when the man they both served was mortally wounded in a skirmish with a Spanish ship. At first, she found the whole idea preposterous, but Will was insistent. By that point, they had already served together for a number of years and he knew that she was the smartest of the whole lot on board. He also knew that what she lacked in brute physical strength, she more than made up for in cunning and stealth, and he'd put her against any man in a sword fight. She was also popular figure among the majority of the crew. Never succumbing to the initial taunting and bating of her shipmates, she won their hard earned respect by giving as good as she got.
Erin took a moment more on the deck, then turned to Will and said, "The ship is yours, Mr. Morgan. Head to deeper waters until we set our new courses."
"Thank ye, Cap'n. I did think we'd be partakin' of Lord Dudley's hospitality a while?" he asked hopefully.
Erin smiled, "Sorry Will, but dealing with Lord Dudley has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Besides, you know we have that bit o' business with a certain ex-second mate."
Will smiled in return, and produced a gold pocket watch that sparkled in the sun, "Just as well. His lordship will probably be a wee mad at me when he finds I've taken this."
Erin barked a laugh, and walked off shaking her head. She climbed down the stairs of the quarterdeck to the main deck, and returned to her cabin, the only private accommodations on the ship. Glancing at the maps on the table, she thought about plotting their next move. Once the outcome of the crews' votes had been tallied, Will had revived Lord Dudley with a bucket of cold seawater, and handed him the signed Letter of Marque.
Will leaned over Dudley's prostrate form, and grinned into his still pale, sputtering face, sarcastically saying, "Here ya are, Mister Dudley. One Letter of Marque, signed, sealed and delivered to yer trusted hands. We'll be sure to avail ourselves of yer hospitality when next we're here, eh?"
Dudley nodded rapidly, and said as he rose from his prone position, "Most assuredly. My island is your island. Feel free to come and go as you please. Now, if you will excuse me, I'll be heading back." With that, Dudley practically leaped over the rail to join his servants in the rowboat that would take him back to his small ship and then the island. The entire crew nearly wet themselves laughing so hard at the sight of the now soggy and rapidly retreating Lord Dudley.
This business with the Letter of Marque brought up some memories for Erin Skinner, upon which did not like to dwell. Feeling unsettled, she plopped down on her bunk, crossed one leg over the other, and picked up the book she'd left on her pillow. Erin was an avid reader, had been ever since she was a small child, and she read anything she could get her hands on. Today's book had been taken when the Argonaut and her crew had captured an English frigate. It was lying on the captain's bedside table, and both the author, Aphra Behn, and the title, "Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave," intrigued her. That it was written by a woman was especially interesting to Erin, and, having spent some time as a virtual slave herself, she loathed the institution and was interested in reading anyone who too opposed it in writing. In an effort to clear her head, she started to read the passage where she left off the previous evening:
"Those who want slaves make a bargain with a master or a captain of a ship, and contract to pay him so much apiece, a matter of twenty pound a head, for as many as he agrees for, and to pay for 'em when they shall be delivered on such a plantation: so that when there arrives a ship laden with slaves, they who have so contracted go aboard, and receive their number by lot; and perhaps in one lot that may be for ten, there may happen to be three or four men, the rest women and children. Or be there more or less of either sex, you are obliged to be contented with your lot."
While the subject matter was of interest, Erin soon found that she had read this passage three times, before she finally gave up in frustration and put the book down. She folded her arms behind her head, and stared at the ceiling, resigned to mulling over the memories that she unsuccessfully tried to put out of her thoughts.
The Queen, she thought to herself, does not have a guilty bone in her body. Why has she made this offer? Argggh, I could use my Da here to help me figure this out. She knew without doubt that the gesture was political only in nature. She questioned whether the Queen even remembered the debt owed her family at all. Erin had read enough and heard enough from English colonists to know that the Queen fought battles on two fronts-one with the French and Spanish, and the other in her own court. Queen Anne, along with her Whig supporters, was notoriously outspoken about her preference to fight the Spanish and French on the continent, rather than at sea. What better way to prove her point than to recruit cutthroats and criminals who might possibly lose at sea to the highly skilled Spanish? It made Erin's head hurt to think about it. She truly had wanted to sign the Letter of Marque, and hoped the crew would vote in favor of it. However, it was for her own selfish reasons, and she would never risk the crew for a personal vendetta. Now that the Letter was on its way back to London, the plan was that she and her crew would continue to raid Spanish and French ships, and conveniently come up short on booty when it came time to pay the Crown. She had no qualms about breaking the spirit of the Letter. She would use it to full advantage and take some reparation for the death of her father.
Erin's father, John Skinner, was as devout a Catholic as ever-walked Ireland. Headed for the priesthood as a young man, he was only sidetracked by his great love for Erin's mother, Felicity. Mrs. Skinner died during childbirth, and John, though heartbroken, shifted his devotion and love to his only child. Erin grew up in a sheltered academic environment, while her father plied his trade as a professor of Latin. Her father encouraged her to study theology and philosophy, but Erin preferred more 'practical' pursuits, such as biology and astronomy. Truly, her father cared not what she studied, as long as she attacked it with all her energy. Not having a mother from whom to draw information on the 'womanly arts' of the day, Erin took to wearing her father's cast off cloaks and trousers, and learned fencing from some of the local students. All of these habits would come to serve her well once she was forced to make her way alone in the world, and eventually, what helped make her an ideal candidate for the Argonaut's captain.
Following years of service to both the college and his country, King James appointed John to the position of provost at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. On campus, much of the political turmoil in London reached student or faculty ears, and in 1688 when William III took over the throne from James, there was concern about a switch in the crown from Catholic to Protestant. While John had always been a staunch supporter of James II, he also preached moderation and negotiation. He had heard that William was a fair-minded man, and had no reason to suspect he would lose his livelihood.
However, when the very Catholic James II lost his throne to protestant, William of Orange, so too did John Skinner lose his academic appointment. William was not opposed to Catholics as such, but he did oppose anyone fervently loyal to his father-in-law, James. Upon losing his appointment, Skinner came to hate all things associated with William, and followed the exiled James to France. While the Skinners were quite poor during their time on the continent, Erin looked back on it as the best time in her life. Her father, finding only a part time teaching position, was home quite frequently, and spent hours with Erin discussing everything he normally taught in the classroom. There were entire days when they would wander the hillsides, taking only some bread and cheese for sustenance, and debate the Bible or Milton or whatever John had on his mind. Erin believed her father was the smartest, most kind man in England or France, and did whatever small things she could to make his life more pleasurable. She kept their small cottage clean, and learned to cook his favorite foods. When not doing chores, she read every book he owned twice over so she could see the pride in his eyes at her intelligence and industry.
This idyllic life was short lived, however, once James II moved back to Ireland and used it as a base from which to attempt to take back his throne. John Skinner, though an older man by this time, decided to join James' forces. Erin was left in the care of another teacher, Mr. Issac, while her father returned to their homeland to fight.
Although Mr. Issac was kind enough, in the week after her father left, Erin slept only after crying herself to sleep. It hadn't occurred to her that her father might write, so when the post delivered a letter addressed to her she was not sure whom it could be from. The letter was torn and dirty, although the seal was not broken, and the return mark indicated an address in Calais. The seal, however, was the same crest as on her father's ring, and she rushed upstairs to her attic room to read it. Breathless with excitement and exertion, she broke open the seal and read:
July 13, 1691
My darling daughter,
Forgive the subterfuge. I have but moments to write as we are on the move, and I do not know if this note will reach you if I post it from my actual location. I cannot be more specific in my instructions to you in case this letter should fall into the wrong hands. A friend has agreed to post it from his home in Calais. Look for more letters to come your way, as he is constantly crossing and re-crossing the Channel. He is a loyal friend, and true, and will be coming to get you to bring you to me when this is all over. He will introduce himself to you using the name of our favorite constellation. I know you remember the one.
I miss you, my angel. Things here are bright and sunny, and we have not encountered any trouble on our long marches. As I hike, I think about our walks over the meadows constantly, and am ever so glad you made me get out and walk every day. These marches seem like a picnic compared to your youthful scampering (fa!). Do me a favor, will you? Take a walk for me this evening; imagine I'm there, holding your hand, leading you to our favorite tree. Imagine we're discussing astronomy, and you're telling me all about Centaurus. When you look up at those stars, I will look too, and we can be together even when we're apart.
I love you sweetheart, and will
see you very soon.
Erin read the letter over and over, memorizing each word. She then did a quite prudent thing and burned it in case someone should happen upon it. She did not want to do anything that would endanger her father and those with whom he served. She did not need to save it as a reminder, since she knew immediately the constellation mentioned in the letter: Orion.
Days passed, with Erin ever hopeful that she would receive another letter, but none came. News of losses suffered by James' forces at the Battle of Boyne reached the continent in late August, 1691. Only a day after this news, another terrible blow--Erin had held out hope that her father had survived the battle, and had escaped before being captured, but a second and final note arrived from Calais. This note was signed "Orion" and said simply that Erin was not to wait for anyone to come get her. At thirteen, she had an inkling that Orion's life was forfeit too if he exposed both himself and her as those loyal to James. Insightful even at a young age, she understood also what a vicarious position she was in. Still, she could hardly manage she was so subsumed by grief, and could not make any rational decisions on her behalf. She did not cry, and refused to even speak about her loss, but operated in a near somnambulistic state.
Not knowing what to do with a 13-year-old orphan, let alone one who refused to speak and barely ate, Mr. Issac wanted only to wash his hands of the entire affair. It was with some small regret that he made a deal with a sea captain who transported indentured servants to America. There, he reasoned she could start anew and learn a trade; in France she had no future except as a traitor's daughter. For a small fee, Erin was out of his hands and on her way to the colonies before the summer was over.
She spent most of the voyage below deck, only venturing up at night when she wasn't likely to run into anyone. A widow on board tried twice to talk with her, but Erin paid her barely any mind, so the widow soon gave it up. Ship's rations were meager at best, and the passengers existed on two meals a day--plain porridge for breakfast and bread and cheese for supper. Late into the voyage, the porridge was fraught with white lumps that Erin prayed were not maggots, while both the bread and cheese grew pale green with mold.
Erin's arrival at the port of Hampton at the completion of the voyage did little to raise her spirits. While certainly curious about her new home and her surroundings, she remained melancholy and distant from anyone or anything. As a consequence, she cared little for her fate. She had mixed emotions about her indentured servitude. On the one hand, she was too depressed to give it much thought beyond simple compliance with Mr. Issac's suggestion. On the other, a small part of her was hopeful that a complete change of scenery and locale might bring her back to her old self. Yet, it was not within her to simply bend to the will of others. Erin certainly felt conflicted by these motions, and it was easier to shut down than face the overwhelming tide that threatened to engulf her.
Although the summer was only just ending, the sky was overcast and drizzling, and the weather was unseasonably cold. Erin's clothing was getting on the threadbare side and she shivered as she came up on deck to have her first look at the colonies. Once on deck, from the corner of her eye, she noticed a short, severe, dark haired man speaking with the first mate, who was pointing in her direction. The man approached, and stood looking at her for a moment before saying, "Are you Erin Skinner?" Erin merely nodded. "Follow me then." With that the man turned away, and started toward the gangplank. Fortunately, Erin had thought to bring her meager belongings up on deck with her, and she hoisted her suitcase and followed as he bade. They both walked some distance from the dock, and came upon a horse and wagon being tended by a young black boy. The man climbed up onto the front seat, and sat glaring at Erin, until she realized she was to get in as well. She tossed her bag into the back, and started to climb up next to the man.
"Nuh uh," he gestured with his thumb, "you ride in back too." Erin walked around to the back of the wagon, only to find the black boy grinning at her from the one comfortable position on a pile of blankets. She climbed up and got as comfortable as possible, while from his perch the small man clicked his tongue and the horse moved forward. It was a 10-mile trip to the farm where Erin would work. No one spoke during the entire ride. Near the end of the trip, after spending what seemed like hours on a road surrounded by cornfields, the man pulled up a rutted driveway to a dilapidated farmhouse and barn. Erin slipped slowly from the back of the wagon, her back and legs sore from the journey.
"Stevie," the short man spoke to the black boy, "unhitch and tend the horses. Then see your momma about what she wants you to do."
"Yassir," the boy replied.
The man turned a severe eye on Erin, "My name is Van Cortlandt. I am your new master. You will be my indentured servant for the next 7 years. After that time, you are free to earn a living as you see fit. You may address me as Sir or Master. You will sleep in a room just off the kitchen so that you'll be close should the cook or maid need your services. Do you understand all of this?"
Erin nodded affirmative. "Speak up girl!" Van Cortlandt shouted, "You're not a mute are you?"
Erin cleared her throat and said, "No, Sir." Van Cortlandt grunted and nodded, then said, "Follow me" and showed Erin to a room no bigger than a small closet. In it there was a bed with drawers that pulled out from underneath the bed frame. Erin remained standing as the small man addressed her for the final time that day, "The cook and the maid are occupied elsewhere. You are to stay here until they return. Do not touch anything. Do not eat anything."
And so it was that Erin came to America. The remainder of her short stay grew more dismal as the days went by. The cook was a mean tempered older woman who demanded long hours from Erin, and would punish her by rapping her knuckles with a wooden spoon for the slightest mistake. The maid was not much nicer, although when Erin was under her tutelage, she rarely got hit with anything more painful than the feather duster. The farm itself was run by a freed black family, Stevie's mother and father, and their acreage was the only part of the land that prospered. The rest of the house and barn were in such a state of disrepair because, given the choice between alcohol and work, Van Cordlandt chose the bottle every time. Each evening, he would ride into a small nearby village, drink his fill of rum, and barely make the ride home without falling off the horse and breaking his neck. Each day, his head and stomach kept him otherwise occupied until he rose again at 5 PM to start the process all over again.
Van Cortlandt did not know what to make of his new servant. Erin, still in the grips of a tremendous depression, uttered few words and rarely raised her eyes. At first, this pleased her new master because he thought it meant she was docile and easily used. There was, however, an air of contempt and a spark of rebellion whenever she was asked to perform any task for him or the rest of the household. After only a few days, the cook complained about Erin's attitude. Investigating for himself, Van Cortlandt indeed saw that while Erin did her work readily enough, her disdain for him and his household was evident. When Erin refused to speak, which was often, he tried to beat words out of her, then opted to starve words out of her. Still, she said little.
After two months of this behavior, Van Cortlandt returned from the village one night with more than beating on his mind. "Girl," he said stumbling into the kitchen and dropping his pants, "commere. If ya won't talk, I can at least make you scream." Erin rushed past him out the back door and into the woods. Van Cortlandt was too drunk to pursue. She returned shortly before dawn to find him passed out at the kitchen table. Clearly, Erin reasoned, I must escape this hell or risk losing my mind or my life. Not caring where she went or how she got there, she quietly sneaked into her room to remove her few possessions. Once this was accomplished, she tiptoed into the larder and pilfered as much dried meat and dried fruit as she could reasonably carry. Her final thought was to snatch the maid's coat from the closet near the stairs. This move, unfortunately, would take her directly past the sleeping Van Cordlandt. Although the floor creaked, months of cleaning it had given Erin insight into exactly where she could step without making a sound. She had used this to her advantage several times when stealing food from the pantry at night. Erin made it successfully to the closet without making a sound, but on the return trip while trying to exit, she was too busy keeping an eye on Van Cordlandt to notice the pitcher on the counter. The coat collar brushed the vessel, and it fell to the floor with a crash. Van Cordlandt stirred, and Erin panicked. She grabbed the item nearest to her, a frying pan, and smashed him across the back of the head. The bottom of the pan came away covered in hair and blood. Now I've done it, she thought frantically; I'm not only a runaway but also a murderer. Terrified at being caught, Erin scrambled out the backdoor, still clutching the frying pan. Knowing that if caught it would look worse for her if she was found with the murder weapon. But she did not want to leave it behind as evidence. She quickly made her way to the farm's well, removed the cover, and tossed the pan inside. It was her plan then to flee back to the port from which she had come. With only one main road, it was not difficult to find, but the road was well traveled. She hid in the woods whenever a wagon or horse drew near, so that it took her nearly two days to cover the 10-mile distance. Once at the dock, Erin used the cover of darkness to sneak on board the first ship she saw, and hid below deck behind bags of corn and tobacco.
While escaping, Erin's 13 year old mind was occupied only with surviving and getting away. Once aboard ship, she had nothing but time, and memories of what happened to her played over and over in her mind. To her surprise, she found that she could not bring herself to feel any remorse or sorrow for killing Van Cordlandt. He beat her, he starved her, and while she knew God commanded "Thou Shalt Not Kill" she did not think God would want her to suffer either. For the first time in a long while, she thought of her father, and wished he were there to counsel her, to tell her what she had done was justified. But he was not there. For the first time since his death, Erin felt angry. Angry with him for leaving her and placing her in this position. Angry that she would never know a normal life. Angry that she could never finish her education. All of her dreams and desires crushed because her father couldn't stomach a Protestant king. The anger she felt, and the guilt of having these feelings, washed over her like waves wash the shore. And like the salty sea, tears coursed down her face.
It was in this stage of grief that the pirates of the Argonaut boarded Erin's ship. At first, she did not understand what was happening, and she remained hidden as long as possible. But having escaped detection by the ship's crew, the pirates knew all the stowaway tricks, and quickly found her. She was hauled on deck with the other passengers, and made to stand in line while one by one they each walked the plank and were forced overboard into the sea. Some of the passengers needed more prodding than others, and 2 pirates stood on the deck flicking whips across the faces and backsides of anyone who hesitated. As each person fell into the icy water, the pirate crew yelled a great cheer. When it came her turn, Erin did walk swiftly to the end of the plank, anxious not to show these pirate rogues any satisfaction. But as she looked into the ocean depths, her mind screamed, "No!" Before the whip could crack across her buttocks or back, she whirled around and faced her captors. "Are none of you man enough to fight me?!" she demanded. This prompted a laugh from the pirate crew. "Cowards! Yellow dogs!" she shouted desperately. One of the men with the whip raised his hand to strike, when another man stayed his hand and stepped forward, "I'll fight ye, lassie. Teach you some manners, I will." Then he grabbed his crotch suggestively, "Than I'll take ye for me own, and toss wot's left to the sharks."
He drew his sword as Erin made her way back up the plank and onto the deck. She jumped onto the deck's surface, and wisely moved away from the advancing pirate. The two circled each other for a time, the man grinning from ear to ear and licking his lips.
Erin's swordplay was rusty, but still she could see that the man was far too sure of himself to emerge victorious. If only she could even the odds...."Will no one give me his sword?" Erin shouted.
A very young man stepped forward and tossed his small foil at her feet. When she stooped to retrieve it, the other man charged her. He was, however, quite uncoordinated, and Erin easily sidestepped him. He ran past her, and hit his chest on the deck rail. When he turned to come at her again, she shoved the foil into his soft belly, and he fell to the deck mortally wounded. It was over in a matter of seconds, but it earned Erin her life back, and gave her the first modicum of the crew's respect.
She was breathing heavily as she looked up from the second man she'd killed in as many weeks and said, "Any other takers?"
Not one man replied. Into the silence, the pirate captain shouted, "Alright lads, enough show for the day. Pitch the rest o' this lot overboard, and get to hauling this cargo onto the Argonaut." The remaining 2 passengers, old men both, and both protesting loudly, were unceremoniously thrown over the side. All of the pirates moved away and got to work on the cargo except the young man who had given Erin her sword. He offered her his hand to help her up, but she would not take it.
"I'd give you your foil, but I'm afraid this man's using it," she said, kicking her opponent's leg. The young man laughed and said, "Quite alright. I can get another. What's yer name, girl?"
"Erin Skinner," she replied.
"Well, Erin Skinner, I'm pleased to make yer acquaintance. My name's Will Morgan."
It was difficult for Cecile to pinpoint the exact location of her pain. It seemed to radiate throughout her body, and as she shifted to get comfortable, it shifted with her. First, her back ached, then her legs, then her arms. She finally came to the conclusion that no pain compared to the fire in both shoulders, except the fact that she could not move her hands. She also could not open her eyes to see why she felt so much pain. No, wait, take that back. She could open her eyes, she just couldn't see anything. She shook her head to try to clear it. It only partially worked. She could think better, but still could not see. It suddenly dawned on her that she was blindfolded, and that her hands were useless because they tied above her head. Well, she thought to herself, at least that explains why I am blind and in pain. Funny, this isn't my usual idea of foreplay.
Her captors, however, were not terrifically bright. Cecile quickly figured out that since her hands were tied above her head, she was able to turn her head, and use the side of her arm to slightly raise the blindfold. While things were still a bit blurry, she could make out the outline of someone's dirty feet and ragged clothing. Hmmm. I believe those are mine. She wiggled her big toe, and the corresponding big toe wiggled on the dirty feet. Yep, mine all right. She then looked up and saw that her hands had been tied to the bars that stood fortress-like all around her. The top of her cage was covered with an iron door that looked quite heavy. In fact, as she looked around, there appeared to be no way in or out of the cage. She could see two others similarly tied to the bars. One was the young girl she'd seen on her ship that had been introduced as the captain's daughter. The other a dwarf who had been serving as the ship's deck swabby. There were no others in the cage with her, but there were other cages close by. It was near dusk, and she could see a man lighting a campfire some 50 feet from the cages. The area surrounding the cages was thick with jungle foliage, and the sounds of the night animals were just starting. Aside from the whirring of the beetles and screeching of birdcalls, and a distinct ringing in her ears, Cecile could hear nothing else. The men moving about the encampment said nothing to one another, and except for an occasional moan the people in the cages did not make a sound. I guess screaming for help might draw too much unwanted attention, Cecile thought glumly. She blew out a frustrated breath and struggled to remember how she'd gotten in this predicament.
Days before, she had boarded a French cargo ship headed from her home in Martinique to Jamaica on a buying trip. While it was a risky venture to visit Jamaica since it was a British-owned colony, surprisingly few of the English traders refused to deal with as rich a man as Jacques Rembert. And Rembert for his part did not care much about a man's nationality, as long as he could make more money. Thus, an uneasy if profitable alliance was formed, and Cecile and her father often made this crossing. She looked forward to it every time they went. It helped break up the monotony of plantation life, and put as much distance as possible between her and the half dozen moonfaced suitors who pursued her. She always had to beg her father to go, and he, knowing her reasons, would tsk at her and say, "Why is it that you cannot be happy with the men of the island? You know there are at least three of whom I approve. One day you will need to make your choice. I need grandchildren, and you need a man." But she always put him off, and he always relented and let her go with him.
Cecile was her father's daughter when it came to dealings with other people. She could sense subterfuge in a heartbeat, and knew exactly what each and every one of those so-called suitors was after. Two wanted her only for her money. While she understood the attraction (her father was, after all, the wealthiest man on the island), she felt insulted that they didn't at least pretend to want her body. Then there WERE the two that wanted her body. She had allowed each to woo her accordingly, and to make certain advances, always careful to stop short of actual intercourse. It wasn't that Cecile was promiscuous, she simply wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and approached these couplings the same way she approached everything-as an experiment. Unfortunately, in her eyes they were failed experiments. Neither of the lads had elicited the kind of feelings from her that she read about in the romantic poetry of the day. She wasn't foolish enough to think she'd be swept off her feet, but she did crave excitement. While the kissing and petting were pleasant, they did little to arouse her. Finally, the remaining two hung around for God knows what reason. So far, she had not been able to get either one to speak in more than one-word sentences. A more boring pair she could not imagine. Thus, the only man in her life that she could relate to was her father. She spent most of her time in his company. While she thought him pompous, she loved him as well as any daughter could. She wanted him to be proud of her, and practiced over and over the things he taught her. This included everything about the business of his plantation, as well as such expert horsemanship that she could outride nearly anyone on the island.
Jacques Rembert had come to Martinique with his entire family fortune sewn into the lining of his jacket. The "fortune," having been passed on to Jacques upon the death of his watchmaker father, was a scant sum. Jacques, however, had been quite fortunate to buy from a recent widow who was desperate to return to her family in Paris. He was able to purchase 150 acres of land, such slaves as could work the land, as well as the manor house that stood on the grounds. The acreage was in a prime location, bordering the only road between Morne Rouge and St. Pierre. From the busy docks at St. Pierre, the plantation's crop of sugar cane could be sold all along the coast or exported to Europe.
Jacques had a shrewd head for both raising sugar cane and the business side of farming. Thus, it was not too many years before he had amassed a considerable fortune. He considered himself blessed as he had everything he'd ever desired with one exception--a family. When casting about for a suitable wife, he soon saw his choices were limited. He vaguely sensed somehow that he should consider marrying for love, but quashed the notion when not a single decent prospect made herself known.
As was the loathsome custom of his day, he had, on occasion, availed himself of the beds of the slave women in his care. One woman, named Martinique for her native island, was the recipient of the majority of his nightly visits. It was not long, therefore, before she grew large with child. Upon the birth of his daughter, Jacques was immediately smitten with the contents of the tiny bundle laid in his arms. The child, while olive-complected a shade or two lighter than her mother, shared her father's straight black hair and piercing blue eyes.
Jacques took the child from Martinique's arms, and christened her Cecile Rene Rembert; Cecile in honor of his mother and Rene in honor of his father. Cecile never spent another moment in the arms of her mother, and did not ever know that her mother had once occupied the slave quarters. Martinique had, in fact, been sold before Cecile reached age 2. Jacques did not want Cecile to have any contact with her mother, nor know that she was legally a slave according to the laws of the island. When pressed, he would simply reply that her mother had died in childbirth, and refuse to discuss any further details.
Cecile was a precocious child upon whom her father doted. She never lacked for anything and grew into a slightly spoiled young woman. But she did have experiences that taught her to value others, no matter what their station in life. She adored the family cook, Gitte, and looked upon her as a surrogate mother. And, because she loved to hear her father laugh, she developed a droll and wicked sense of humor. Her father insisted that she learn to read and write, although it was almost torture for her to sit indoors when she felt she could be spending her time better by overseeing the fields, or learning to be a better horsewoman. Still, while she learned enough reading and arithmetic to be able to adequately run the farm should her father be absent, it was the actual physical labor that interested her more. Whenever it was her father's duty to check on crops, or purchase supplies, or barter for trading prices, Cecile was always by his side.
Thus it was that she found herself on the deck of their cargo vessel, nautically about the half way point between Martinique and Jamaica, arguing with her father about the need to go below deck, while pirates boarded the ship around her. The last thing Cecile remembered prior to waking up in the cage was clobbering the pirate who had just pushed a sword through her father's thigh.
But now was not the time to dwell on such images. Now she needed all her wits about her to get out of these ropes and out of this cage.
She heard a small whimpering sound coming from the girl on her left. "Stephanie?" she whispered.
"W-who's there?" came the whispered response.
"It is Cecile Rembert. Are you alright?"
"Ah, Mademoiselle Rembert. It is so good to hear your voice. Where are we? I cannot see anything."
"I'm not sure how we got here. I do not recognize any of these men from our ship."
Stephanie replied in a voice that was too loud for Cecile's comfort, "The last thing I remember was a filthy pirate coming at me with a cleat in his hand and a leer on his face. He must have knocked me out."
"SHHHH. Shhhh. I know you are nervous, but I don't think we should let them know we are awake. Now, are you hurt?" Cecile was busy formulating an escape plan, and it wouldn't work if Stephanie couldn't move.
"I-I don't think so," Stephanie whispered.
"Good. I'm going to do my best to get us out of here, and I want you to be ready for anything, understood?"
Stephanie's voice rose again, "But Mademoiselle Rembert, how will you do that?"
Cecile's initial sharp retort died on her lips as she thought about how frightened the young girl sounded, "I'm not sure yet, Stephanie, but when the time comes, you follow my lead, alright?"
Stephanie nodded her head, until she realized Cecile could not see her, and replied, "Yes, I understand."
"Good. And Stephanie? It will save us much time if you call me Cecile."
Cecile and Stephanie didn't have to wait long. Once the sun set and the day cooled, the men became more active and the camp livened up considerably. It seemed that most the men slept during the day and awoke just in time to drink the night away. Either that or many of them were living in the jungle, and only joined the camp after dark. Even as filthy as some appeared, Cecile doubted that this was the case. As the evening wore on, the voices of the men around the campfire grew louder and the rum flowed more freely. Even with the sheer volume of noise, Cecile surmised there were only about 10 men in this pirate camp.
Ten men...thought Cecile...wonder if we could take them? I see four cages, 3 people or so per cage. We could attack if I could get everyone to rally. Not easy when we're all blindfolded and tied up. Makes my head hurt just to think about it.
Cecile did not realize she'd dozed off until she heard the voice of a man very near her cage.
"Well, well, well. I'll bet this one 'ere is a tasty treat, eh, Johnny?"
Cecile woke to the smell of alcohol and the feel of a grubby hand running up and down the sensitive flesh on her upper arm. She jerked around as far as she could to try to see who was assaulting her, but she could not turn far at all, and the pirate mistook her actions for fear.
Laughing he said, "Oh, yeah, this one's lively a'right. If I c' only open tha cage and 'ave a real looksee."
The pirate named Johnny spoke up, "Don't be a fool, Dingo. You know wot Gib says about damaging the merch. Do you want to be 'ung?"
"Oh, I'm 'ung a'right," replied Dingo rubbing his crotch, "and she's about to find out 'ow low too."
"Suit yerself," said Johnny, "can I 'ave yer cutlass when yer gone?"
"You'll get nothin' a mine Johnny-boy, exceptin' my fist up yer ass."
"I'd loik to see you try, ya gutless wonder."
The verbal fight had escalated to the point where it drew the attention of the drunken crowd around the fire. Never a group to miss a good fight, the men gathered around Johnny and Dingo on three sides, the fourth being the side of the cage in which Cecile was housed. Neither man had the intention of getting physical, but with their comrades egging them on, it was inevitable that they would draw weapons.
Johnny and Dingo circled each other, knives raised, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Shouts of encouragement and insults were tossed at both men from the gathered crowd. Cecile could see that her original estimate was incorrect--there were at least 20 pirates surrounding the would-be fighters, and her heart sank with this knowledge. Overpowering the camp was now out of the question. A new plan was needed. It presented itself soon enough.
As Johnny and Dingo circled, the latter thought he'd try to intimate Johnny with a few knife tricks. But tossing the knife from hand to hand proved even too much for Dingo's rum-addled brain, and he completely missed it on the second fling. In the near darkness, he didn't see it fly through the bars of the cage and land inches away from Cecile's right foot. Johnny, just as drunk, didn't even realize that Dingo had lost his weapon.
"Come on, ya chickens," a man shouted from the crowd, "ge' on wit it!"
Without his knife, Dingo was forced to draw his only other weapon-his cutlass. Immediately the crowd fell silent at this new, more dangerous turn of events.
Johnny dropped his knife to the ground, "I don't want yer bloody cutlass that bad, Dingo-boy. I don't even remember wot we was fightin' about, do you?" Johnny tried, and failed, to smile disarmingly.
Dingo stared at Johnny a minute, one eye squinting as was his habit when he was deep in thought. The crowd remained silent, intently watching to see what move each man would make next. The only sounds Cecile could hear were the crackle of the campfire and the hum of jungle insects. Dingo slowly smiled and said, "We was fightin' about wot an asshole you are, John-boy."
The crowd exploded in laughter; the only one not smiling was Johnny. When the laughter died down a bit, Johnny replied slowly, "Or was it that we was fightin' about me bein' in yer arsehole, Dingo? Did't yew say yew wanted me to fuck you?"
With a growl of rage, Dingo swung his cutlass in a high arc, intent on separating Johnny's mouth from the rest of his body. In a quick flash, Johnny pulled another knife from a special pouch behind his back and hurled it directly into the rapidly advancing Dingo. The knife hit him square in the chest, but Dingo continued charging, and slashed down across Johnny's shoulder. As he pulled the blade out to raise it above his head for another blow, the sword cut a deep gash into Johnny's carotid artery. Dingo, thinking that victory was within his grasp, failed to notice the copious flow of blood from the wound in his chest. Only when he unsuccessfully tried to draw a deep breath to yell a victory cry, did he realize something was wrong. He looked down and the last thing he saw before collapsing was the bubbling of his own blood out of his punctured lung as he inhaled and exhaled for the last time. He collapsed dead on top of Johnny, who was still alive and trying to speak. Nothing issued forth from his lips save frothy red bubbles.
A very tall, very thin bald man with a long hanging mustache emerged from the back of the crowd and knelt next to Johnny. "Wot's that, lad? Wot chu tryin' to say?"
Johnny's mouth worked up and down, but still no sounds were uttered. His head lolled to the side, and he died quietly.
The tall man stood, turned to the crowd and shouted, "John says the drinks are on 'im boys!" The crowd laughed and joked, and slowly returned to their drinking and carousing. The bald man then beckoned to a shirtless black man standing in the twilight shadows.
"Yes, Mr. Gib," the black man said as he approached. It seemed almost as though a tree trunk had come to life, and moved out of the shadows cast by its own branches. To say that the black man, Timothy, was big would be an understatement. Nearly as tall as Gib, he was almost three times his width, all of his bulk being muscle. The moonlight, now brighter than the waning day, reflected off the sweat on Timothy's body, and bought out the contrasting shadows on his muscular frame.
"Timothy, get rid o' these idjits. Feed 'em to the sharks. Tomorrow, when everyone's sober, includin' meself, remind me to kick some arse over this squabble."
"Yes, Mr. Gib. It will be done."
Gib clapped Timothy on the shoulder and said, "Yer the best damn rascal in this whole outfit. Lord, I wish I had just t'ree of you to twenty o' this lot."
Timothy simply smiled in reply, and gently removed Gib's hand from his shoulder. Turning Gib in the direction of the campfire, he led him half way to it, before returning and tossing Johnny's inert body over his shoulder.
Cecile, who watched the entire exchange in sickened horror, was only glad that Stephanie's blindfold was still in place. Timothy returned a short while later to pick up Dingo's remains. First, however, he pried the bloody cutlass from his fingers and examined it in the moonlight. He then wiped the blood onto the dead man's shirt, and stuck the blade into his own scabbard.
Cecile held her breath, waiting for him to return again and possibly search for the knife that Dingo had lost, but Timothy did not reappear. While it seemed a prime opportunity to pick up the weapon, Cecile's hands were quite literally tied. Stretching the considerable length of her body to its furthest position, she managed to grapple the knife handle with her toes and pull it towards her. Breathing heavily with this exertion, Cecile paused and pondered her next move. The knife was safely tucked under her right calf, but how was she supposed to carry it? She couldn't wait until the guards opened the cage because they might see it. Her brow furrowed in thought, Cecile did not hear Stephanie inquire, "Madam...Cecile, what were you doing just now? Cecile?" Whispered more loudly, "Cecile?!"
Snapped out of her reverie, Cecile finally responded, "What?"
"Why were you grunting just now?"
"I was attempting to do something to help our escape. Don't worry about what I'm doing. I don't want our conversation to draw attention to us." Cecile realized she was speaking a bit harshly and softened her tone, "Get some rest, and just be ready for anything tomorrow, alright?"
Stephanie bowed her head, and tried, unsuccessfully, to keep from crying. Her tears, however, did not last for long, and the exhausted girl fell into a fitful slumber. Cecile, meanwhile, was already ignoring the girl in favor of figuring out the solution to her problem. After several attempts to pick up the knife and move it to her waiting hand, the only thing she had succeeded in doing was dropping it on her side and nicking her abdomen. Knowing that her exertions would soon draw unwelcome attention, she stopped very short of breath and extremely frustrated. Not only that, but contorting her body in order to allow her foot to get near her hand had only served to remind her that her bladder needed relief.
Blast! She thought, NOW what do I do?? Weary from her struggle, Cecile decided to give herself a minute to relax, and try to concentrate on a solution. She closed her eyes and took several calming breaths. As soon as she felt her heart beat slow to a decent pace, however, she felt something touch her leg. Willing herself not to yell at Stephanie, she opened her eyes to see why the girl was interrupting her train of thought. But Stephanie was on the other side of the cage, sleeping soundly. Cecile's eyes grew wide when she looked at her right leg, and could see a long, cylindrical outline slithering over her shin. Knowing that a scream would only bring her captors to her cage, where they might discover her knife, Cecile remained completely motionless. The snake, seemingly not in any hurry, paused and flicked its tongue across her toes a few times, as if to taste test its current resting place. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, it continued on its jungle rounds in search of smaller food than Cecile.
Letting out a quiet sigh of relief, Cecile vigorously rubbed her shin and toes with her other foot, trying to erase the slimy feelings the snake had aroused. It was then that she truly noticed the state of her stockings. Most of what had been on her feet was gone, but a good portion still covered her legs. These stockings were thick and tight. They might actually work to hide the blade until she could use it. Clutching the handle with her toes, she slowly and carefully slid the sharp end up into the stocking covering her calf. Amazingly, she managed to do so with only a small nick in her skin, and an even smaller tear in the stockings. Her skirt would certainly cover her legs well enough to avoid suspicion.
After successfully hiding the knife, Cecile slept as best she could considering the now near excruciating pain in her shoulders and the pressure in her bladder. She woke to morning light and the sound of moaning in nearby cages. She could see through the underside of her blindfold that the cages were being raised. The pirates had created an ingenious system whereby a rope was tied to a metal ring in the top of the cage, while the other end was slung over a tree branch. It took a couple of men to hoist the heavy cages high enough to permit the prisoners egress. As the cages were raised, so too were the arms of each prisoner, until their feet barely touched the ground. Other guards would then duck into the cage and unlock the iron chains from the bars of the cell, but not from the prisoners-they remained manacled. The prisoners moaned and grunted in pain as each was unceremoniously hoisted up to their tiptoes causing further injuries to their arms and wrists. Cecile prayed that the knife would remain safely tucked into her stockings when her cage was raised.
She did not have to wait long to find out. The tall, balding man named Gib, looking none the worse for wear after his drinking bout the previous evening, approached her cage. "And how are ma wee darlin's this fine mornin'?" He flashed a tooth-decayed smile at them. No one in the cage answered. Gib called out, "Timothy!" And the black man was immediately at Gib's side, seemingly out of no where.
Gib jerked his thumb in the direction of the cage, "Can ya do somet'in' about this then?" Timothy nodded, and with one clean jerk lifted the cage and its inhabitants into the air. Gib ducked under the lowest bar, and unchained first the swabby, then Stephanie, and finally Cecile. He breathed a foul message into Cecile's face, "You gave us a bit o' trouble when we caught ya. Let's not have any o' that this time, right?"
The stench from Gib was palpable, a mixture of old liquor, sweat and rotten meat. It was all Cecile could do not to gag in his face. Wanting to appear as docile as possible in hopes of fooling the men into thinking her harmless, she timidly whispered, "May I please be taken to the ladies' area?"
Gib burst out laughing in her face, and the wretched stench washed over her again. "'The ladies' area'," he mimicked, "Oh, that's rich. Yew, madam, can piss yer drawers for all I care. I lost a good man over yew last night."
Cecile forgot herself long enough to utter, "It was that idiot's fault, not mine."
Gib's eyes narrowed, and he said menacingly, "Wot didjew say?"
Mentally kicking herself for speaking out, Cecile replied demurely, "Please, sir, I've had to go all night."
"Timothy," Gib said, "take 10 men, and all the prisoners, and let them go relieve themselves away from the camp. I won't have the stench driving away my buyers."
Buyers?? So that's what they mean to do with us. Sold as common slaves. Cecile thought quickly. I might have better luck escaping from one master than this group. Damn, I can't leave Stephanie to these brutes.
Moving with the group who had been expertly chained together, Cecile and the other prisoners we led to a small grove of bamboo some hundred yards from the camp. There might not be a more opportune moment for Cecile to escape--except for the chains and the whimpering girl beside her. Cecile thought it best to bide her time and see whether she and the others would ever be unclasped. Not caring a wit who saw her, she bent to her knees, dug a small hole, and squatted over it. Using the necessity of relieving herself as cover, she plucked the knife from her stockings and slid it under her sleeve. No one noticed since none of the pirates wanted to watch the prisoners defecate.
Once finished, they all shuffled back to the camp, and were led to a small platform in a tree clearing. It was to these trees that the prisoners were chained and left for the remainder of the morning. As the sun rose toward noon, strangers began appearing from a trailhead that led into the jungle. These new men were generally cleaner, and looked more well to do than the pirates in the camp. With little forewarning, they began inspecting each prisoner one by one. Some even removed the blindfolds to inspect for cataracts or other visual deformities. They also looked at each prisoner's teeth, hair, and skin. Some of the soon-to-be-slaves were forcefully disrobed to the waist, either by having their pants yanked down or their shirts yanked open. Cecile's fate was the latter, and she bore the treatment as stoically as possible while each man pawed at her breasts. Stephanie, meanwhile, was fully sobbing at this treatment, and Cecile's patience with the young girl was wearing thin. There was nothing that could be done to prevent this from happening, so why was the girl giving them the satisfaction of seeing her terror? There was naught that Cecile could do to assuage the girl's tears because the two had been chained some distance apart. She only hoped that Stephanie would remember her advice to be ready for anything once the opportunity arose to escape.
A crowd of 30 or so of these 'inspectors' gathered in front of the platform as Gib jumped up on its surface and held his hands up to silence the assembly. "Gentlemen, Gentlemen, can I 'ave yer attention. As some o' yew lot know, I am a man wot specializes in a dif'rent kinda trade. Yew've all been invited 'ere to sample some o' my wares. After many months' work, I 'ave assembled 'ere a awesome display. As many of yew can see fer yourselfs, these 'ere are prime specimens. Yew can 'ave your pick o' the litter, shall we say, fer the right price. Before we get started, there's a few ground rules...we take only cash on the barrelhead. If yew got jewels or some such, don't want 'em. Might as well leave now. Second, no fightin'. This 'ere is a strick rule as I don't want no dead customers. T'ree: yew've inspected the merch once, no pawing at the slave while we're bidding.
"Now, gentlemen, if we're all in agreement." Gib waited for general nods of approval from the assemblage before continuing, "Then let's begin." The dwarf swabby was led to the platform. "This 'ere fella is strong as a ox, and works double 'ard wif or wifout the whip. He was swabby on the ship wot we found 'im on, and 'e's been docile since we brought 'im 'ere. 'e'd also be great entertainment for yer guests. Wot's the first bid? Do I 'ear 10 pounds?"
And so, the humiliating process began. Each of the prisoners was brought up on the platform, sold to the highest bidder, and chained back to the trees to await their new master. Cecile tried to remain as stoic and alert as possible, but the strain of the few days' events could plainly be seen on her face in the dark circles under her eyes. Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her resolve to free both herself and the others. But how? She thought to herself. It wasn't until one of the prisoner's attempted to attack Gib that she got an idea. The attempt, though foolhardy and lame, did take Gib by surprise, and he recoiled away from the man who had done the attacking.
So, she thought, Mr. Gib is a coward at heart. Perhaps I can leverage this to my advantage.
When it came Cecile's turn to join Gib on the platform, she made sure to have her hand around the handle of the knife that was tucked securely in the sleeve of her dress. Her plan, desperate though it was, was to wrap her chains around Gib's neck and keep her dagger pointed at his throat. From there, she would threaten to kill him unless all the prisoners were set free. Once the prisoners were freed, she would make them disarm the pirates, and take over the camp. She walked up to the platform, and stood as close to Gib as possible while he began the bidding on her.
"'ere lads, we have a foine treat fer ya. A plantation owner's daughter." Cecile was surprised that Gib knew this piece of information, and she was momentarily taken aback. So focused was she on what Gib had to say, that she failed to notice a new group join the crowd, until the first one spoke up
>From the back of the crowd, a woman was slowly approaching the platform, with a smirk firmly planted on her features. "Now, Gib, what have I told you about this little hobby of yours?"
Gib blanched at the site of the woman, and Cecile, who had been focusing on his face, now turned to look at the stranger. She was startled to see that the person who had Gib so obviously distressed was a mere slip of a woman. Even more startling, the crowd parted and made a wide path for her approach to the stage.
Gib recovered a bit and replied, "Cap'n Skinner. To wot do I owe the pleasure?"
The woman smiled menacingly, "No, Gib, the pleasure's all mine. What did I tell you I'd do next time I caught you in this little enterprise?"
"Wot I do's none o' yer business, Skinner."
"Oh, it's just 'Skinner' now is it?" Erin pretended shock, "Tsk. And you used to be so...loyal when you served with me."
Gib looked around the audience, but did not recognize any other of the Argonaut's crew except Erin and Will, who was standing at the outer edge of the circled crowd. "Yeah, well, I'm not serving yew no more, and this 'ere's my island. Yew'll do wot I say when I says it, and I say ge' out before I send Timothy after ya."
"Timothy? Is he here too?" Erin replied. "My, my, what wonderful comp'ny you keep these days Gib Lewis."
Cecile glanced at Timothy, who was glaring at the red-haired woman with such hatred in his eyes it made her shudder.
Erin continued, "Still, while Timothy is a formidable foe, I don't believe he's a match for us."
Gib started laughing, "A match fer yew? All I see's one freakish woman and her lap dog, William. Now run along and play before I cut yer throats."
Will had begun walking forcefully toward the stage with these last remarks, hand on the hilt of his sword, but Erin held up one hand and stopped him in his tracks directly behind her.
"I'll give you one last chance to set these people free, and take down this wretched camp," Erin said quietly. " After that, I won't be responsible for your safety and the safety of your men."
Cecile was amazed that Gib actually appeared to be mulling over his decision. There was no way that this small woman and the man who stood next to her could take the entire camp. She figured it was now or never, and she quickly flung her chains as tightly as possible around Gib's neck. In the process, the knife she had been holding tumbled to the stage, and so she held on for dear life, certain that Gib would kill her the moment he got free. The action caused all hell to break loose. Timothy, oblivious to Gib's plight, charged at Erin from behind the platform. He was on her in two strides, but she had already drawn her sword. Will whistled loudly as several men from the camp charged in their direction, and from the trees, a large contingent of the Argonaut's crew emerged from the jungle and joined the fray. Not having signed on for sword fighting, the customers disappeared into the jungle almost as quickly as they had appeared. While Will wanted nothing more than to help Erin fight Timothy, he had his own battle to win as two of the camp members charged at him with swords raised.
Erin, meanwhile, had her hands full with the 300 pound Timothy. Knowing he outweighed her by more than twice her size, and knowing that he too was a wily opponent, Erin spent most of the fight simply taking as defensive a stance as possible. The large man was surprisingly agile and left few openings for an offensive attack. Erin did have the single advantage of speed, and used it most effectively. Weaving her way through the throng of men, she allowed the natural pushing and shoving that took place on such a battlefield to toss Timothy about. He, being so intent on his prize, failed to notice when he shoved aside one of his own men or one of Erin's. He himself slashed through four of the camp's inhabitants before trapping Erin against the side of one of the cages. With an evil gleam in his eye, he thrust his sword at the woman's gut with all his might. Erin allowed her feet to slide out from under her, so that Timothy's sword only went through the cage bars, and not her stomach. Before he had a chance to recover, she kicked up as hard as she could with her feet, and snapped his sword in the bars. With a roar, Timothy reached down with one hand, grabbed the front of Erin's shirt, and tossed her into a nearby tree.
By now, most of the men in the camp had either been killed or run off, so Will and two others were already on their way to rescue their captain. Before Timothy could take a step towards Erin, he was intercepted, and all three men held him at bay with their swords. Will shouted over his shoulder to Erin who was behind him on the ground.
"Are ye alright, Cap'n?"
Erin tried to get words to come out, but the wind had been completely knocked from her when she hit the tree. Licking her lips she tried one more time, "Aye, Will," she croaked, "I can't breathe, but otherwise I'm fine."
Will smiled, then turned to more of his men and said, "You lot! Get a rope so's we can tie this boyo up. The rest o' you lads, hoist this here cage so Mr. Tim here can rest in solitude."
The men did as commanded, and soon had Timothy trussed and caged. Erin was able to breathe a bit freer, but was afraid that she'd broken a rib or two in the scuffle. Not wanting to appear weakened in any way, she rose from her sitting position while the men were busy with Timothy, and directed her other men to find the keys to the chains and release the prisoners. She climbed up onto the platform while her orders were being carried out so that she could better address the now freed 'slaves.'
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention for a wee moment." All eyes turned expectantly toward Erin. "My name is Captain Erin Skinner of the good ship Argonaut. My crew and myself are privateers in Her Majesty's service. I am acquainted with Mr. Gib and Mr. Timothy as former members of my crew who were marooned for stealing. You can be sure they will be dealt with severely for what they have done to you. While I cannot, in good conscience, leave you here, I also am not a hansom cab on the seas. I will take all of you as far as the port of Tortola where you can catch any ship that strikes your fancy. I would not suggest remaining here since pirates are known to use this island as a safe harbor. You will all bring with you what food you can carry. I've no room for extra provisions."
With that, Erin stepped down from the platform, grimacing in pain as she did so, her broken ribs grinding. Will walked up to her and said loud enough for all to hear, "Cap'n, the entire camp has been secured. Wot shall we do with this lot?"
Doing her best to sound commanding and not in pain, Erin replied, "We'll take them for trial on Tortola. Drop them off into Gov'nor Dudley's capable hands. It'll be your responsibility to see that they're stowed where they can't escape."
"Aye, ma'am," Will responded, then whispered to her, "'Privateers for Her Majesty'? Have you gone daft, Erin?"
Erin tried unsuccessfully not to grin up at him, "Hey, whatever gets us what we want, I'm gonna use. Right now, I want those passengers docile. 'Sides, I'm not far wrong now that we've signed that Letter."
Will only shook his head, and made one final comment before departing, "Mind those ribs now. I'll take a look when we get back to the ship."
"Aye, aye, 'captain,'" said Erin, mock saluting.
The process of getting both the former captives and the pirates from camp onto the Argonaut was not an easy one. To start, the Argonaut had only two dingys with which to row people back and forth from shore to ship. Secondly, once aboard ship, there was now very limited space for the Argonaut's crew and the people being shuttled to Tortola. At one point, Erin was so fed up with the pirates' bickering, she was tempted to leave them on the island and let them fend for themselves. Two things, however, stopped her from doing so. First, she had sworn to herself a long time ago to set a good example for her crew. And while her ethics as a pirate were somewhat skewed, she did her utmost to remain within her personal moral code. Yet, while she knew these men must face trial for their crimes, she was not sure she or her crew were any less reprehensible. Flying under the banner of Queen and Country did little to dispel her unease about imprisoning other pirates. As near as she could tell, the only difference was their disgusting practice of selling slaves. Erin abhorred slavery in any form, but Gib's version was especially loathsome, and hit too close to home for Erin's tastes. Virginia had been much the same experience for her as the lives of the people Gib sold would be for them. Erin had managed in the past to pillage enough ships to keep her men happy with the financial rewards, while disguising her true purpose for agreeing to captain the Argonaut: capturing slavers, and turning their prisoners free. While the crew had grown accustomed to several additional passengers every few months, the current onslaught was almost too much to handle. Erin's second reason for not leaving the camp members behind was simple--she knew they would start right back up again capturing and selling innocent victims. Putting them in Tortola's jail, or better yet, the island prison off Cuba, would be more suited to her goals.
Fed up with the whole process, and in severe pain from the broken ribs, Erin made her escape from the scene by retiring to study maps and charts. A flimsy excuse since they had just charted a course away from Tortola, but she was too tired to make anything else sound convincing.
"Mr. Morgan," she shouted as loudly as she could, which wasn't very, "you have the ship. Get the rest of those prisoners stowed. I want to leave for Tortola as soon as possible."
Erin turned to head towards her cabin, and was brought up short by a woman standing directly behind her. She looked up to find Cecile staring down at her with thinly veiled contempt written on her face.
Cecile spoke up, "May I have a word with you, Mon Capitan?"
The nerve of this woman, thought Erin, first she nearly ruins our plans to capture the camp, and then she has the gall to bother me when it's obvious I'm quite busy.
Cecile took Erin's silence as her cue to continue, "I really have urgent need to return to Martinique to ensure the safety of my plantation. I would be ever so grateful if you could see your way to chart a course for there straight away. I would be glad to make it worth your while with financial compensation."
Through gritted teeth, Erin managed to civilly reply, "As I said on the island, we are not a taxi service. You will be dropped off with the other passengers in Tortola. You can find a ship from there. If you will excuse me."
Erin made a move to go around Cecile and back to her cabin, but Cecile stopped her with a firm hand on her upper arm. She did not notice that this caused Erin to grimace in pain, and she continued unabated, "I am not in the habit of begging, Captain Skinner, but I will do so if necessary in this case. I NEED to get to Martinique."
Cecile was incensed. Couldn't this woman see she was a person of substance? She thought all that pirates wanted money, and she was prepared to pay quite a handsome sum, if only this woman would listen. Before Erin could reply, Jonas stepped into the discussion, sword in hand, "I'd suggest, missy, that yew get yer hand offin the Cap'n before I remove it meself."
Cecile pulled her hand back as if burned. "Jonas," Erin said, "please see that this woman is placed with the other 'guests'."
"Yes, Cap'n." Jonas grabbed Cecile's arm much the same way she had grabbed Erin's, "This way, miss."
Cecile was mystified. Loyalty among thieves? She'd never heard of such a thing. Yet, both Mr. Morgan and Jonas were protective and deferential to Captain Skinner. Well, she'd never known a man who couldn't have his loyalty swayed a bit by money. She would start with Mr. Morgan, and see if he could be bribed into putting in a word with the Captain. Unsure whether her father had made it through the raid on their ship, she wanted to return to Martinique as swiftly as possible to see if he had arrived at the plantation, and start a search if necessary. She also wanted to make sure the plantation was still in good working order before setting off on such a search.
After getting the prisoner's sorted and stowed, Will went to Erin's cabin and knocked softly on the door. When he did not get a response, he waited briefly before entering. He found Erin asleep on her bed, snoring softly. He smiled as he looked down on her. When she had first come on board the Argonaut, she trusted no one, and as a result, got very little sleep. He was glad she now had such trust in him and her men that she allowed herself this luxury without thought.
When she first came on board, having won her fight against a crewmember, she was invited to join the ship in the position of swabby. With no place else to turn, and realizing she would not lose her life, at least not to these pirates, she set to her lowly duties with alacrity. She was smart enough to trust no one, not even Will, as far as the possibility sexual assault was concerned; and with good reason. These were, after all, pirates who spent weeks at sea, and she was at the time the only female on board. For that reason, she slept every night with a knife under her pillow. To her credit, she had only used it once, and while she didn't kill the pirate who attacker her, he did lose his right eye in the incident.
Will thought back grimly to those days. He was ashamed it took him so long to come to her aid. It was one of the things that bound him to her now. Had he not been much more than a deck hand himself he might have found the gumption to stand up to the men who accosted and taunted Erin daily. By the time he felt secure enough in his position to help her, she didn't need it. Erin fought her way tooth and nail, winning nearly every time, until the scum left her alone, and a majority of the crew respected her. While he continued to feel badly for his inaction, he reasoned that she did all right for herself. If not for her early bravery standing alone, as well as her skill with both knife and sword, she would not now be the captain, and the Argonaut would not be the richest pirate ship that sailed these waters.
Will remembered distinctly the day she rose above her station as deck hand to a position in the ship's leadership. They had been anchored off a small key, making some repairs to their sails and planking, and counting their weapons and supplies to see what they were in need of. He and Erin were below deck checking the cannon powder, when they heard shouting from above. The lookout in the crow's nest spotted a Spanish galleon on the horizon. Since the only sails still hung from the rigging were the jib and the topsails, the Argonaut was a sitting duck. It soon became apparent that the Spanish ship had spotted them and was heading their way. Not only could they not move to protect themselves, but also they had in their possession a load of booty from another galleon they had captured and sunk a few days earlier.
Erin stood next to Will on the deck muttering under her breath.
"Wot's that yew say?" Will questioned.
"I said," replied Erin, "that the Captain's a bloody idiot leaving us exposed like this. We should be much closer to shore, and on the lee side of that cliff to hide as much as possible. We also should only have taken down one sail at a time."
Some of the other crew overheard these remarks, and one of them piped up, "We're not cowards, Skinner. We'll not run from any fight!" There were general murmurs of agreement from the 10 or so men that had gathered around.
Erin turned to face the men, "I'm not suggestin' you'd run from anything. But, out here in the open, without our sails and low on powder, we don't stand much chance against the Spanish."
Will spoke up, "Wot would yew suggest we do now that we're stuck here?"
Erin thought a brief moment, then replied assertively, "I'd get the booty off the ship and bury it. FAST. We still have time to get a rowboat to shore with at least 2 chests of gold. Our ship is between the Spanish and the island, so chances are they wouldn't be seen. The men who take the gold can hide the boat behind that reef close to shore."
Will was impressed, "Then wot?"
Erin was on a roll, "Then, I'd make it seem like we were even more stuck than we are to fool the Spanish into thinkin' they can board us. If they see a dead ship with a small crew, they're less likely to attack with cannon to sink us. They'll board us to take what we got. Then we attack. Hand to hand we can beat anyone!"
A great cheer went up from the men that had gathered around, and the captain stormed down from the quarterdeck to see about the commotion. While the captain was certainly arrogant, but not a complete idiot, and he did know a good idea when he heard one. Upon hearing the plan, he pretended that was exactly what he intended to do all along. He gave the order, and a rowboat was lowered into the water with 4 men, 2 chests of booty, and 4 shovels. Time was of the essence, but the dinghy had both the current and the wind on its side. The men managed to go around the reef and head directly for shore in only a few minutes.
Both Will and Erin remained on deck, along with the oldest and youngest crewmembers. This made it look as though there was a crew, but that their ages made them vulnerable. Also, the 10 cannon on board were wheeled to the lee side of the main deck, and draped with the sails that were under repair. It was hoped that all this would serve to lure the Spanish close enough to the Argonaut to take over their vessel. Shifting the cannon was a chancy move, especially if the Spanish discovered too early that the pirate ship was not ripe for the taking. The entire scheme rested on timing, and Erin prayed the Captain would not give the order to attack too soon.
For his part, Will sat next to Erin, admiring his friend. He'd known she was smart and brave, but had no idea she could strategize so well, and this moved her up even further in his estimation. It was also her idea to run up a white flag of truce to likewise help lure the Spanish. While the Argonaut was certainly in danger, a crew that looked so ill prepared to fight stood less of a chance of getting sunk by cannon and more of a chance of getting boarded and looted.
The crew on deck watched anxiously as the Spanish drew closer. The captain whispered from his vantage spot, "Steady now, lads. Keep yer swords outta yer hands."
During planning of the attack, it was decided that Jonas would wear the captain's colors and clothes, and pretend to try to negotiate with the crew on the galleon. Not only did he speak Spanish, but also he looked older and weaker than anyone on board. His thin frame did not hint at the bands of muscle that lay beneath his shirt.
As the cumbersome Spanish ship edged to within yards of the Argonaut, Jonas stood on the quarterdeck and shouted, "Ahoy the Spanish ship San Christobal!" Everyone could see a large contingent of opposing crew on the deck of the galleon, most smiling lasciviously at their prey.
"Ahoy the good ship Argonaut!" came the answering reply. "Prepare to be boarded."
The Argonaut captain whispered to Jonas, "Psst. Jonas. Wot's he say?"
"'e says we're to be boarded," Jonas mouthed back.
"Good. 'old steady lads. Don't make a move 'til I give the signal. Yew lot that can be seen, look as afraid as yew can." The captain could see several men nod in agreement, while the visible crew did their best to look scared. Most only looked constipated. By this time, the galleon had lumbered into position, and the majority of its crew could be plainly seen. Overconfident that their ship could take a small sloop like the Argonaut, especially one flying under a white flag, they hadn't even readied their cannon. The Spanish captain was quite skilled, and brought his ship nearly equal to the Argonaut's port side. Seeing the two ships in the water side by side was like looking at David and Goliath. If it weren't for the shallow draft and limited cargo of the Argonaut, she would have sat significantly lower in the water than the San Cristobal. If that had happened, the jig would be up since the Spanish crew would easily be able to see onto the deck and spot the cannon and the hidden crew. As it was, every man on the San Cristobal had climbed down from crow's nests and ropes to get a first hand look at their prey. Not a one could see but a few feet over the Argonaut's railing. Erin's plan could not have worked better. Now, it was up to the crew to outmaneuver the Spanish, and the element of surprise was definitely in the pirates' favor.
The Spaniards had set up a series of rope swings, and nearly two dozen men swung onto the deck of the Argonaut. This too played perfectly into pirate hands. Before the Spaniards even had time to swing the ropes back to their shipmates, the hidden pirate crew jumped forward, cutting the Spaniards to ribbons as the ropes were snatched from their hands. The pirates then used the same ropes to swing back onto the San Cristobal. Once on board the galleon, the pirates engaged the first Spaniards they saw, and ran a good many through with their swords before the Spanish captain shouted orders of alarm. A second wave of pirates followed the first, and Erin was among this group. By the time she landed in a squatting position, and rolled upright on the deck, the Spanish ship was fully engaged. The Spaniards who had been unlucky enough to board the Argonaut were quickly dispatched. With few exceptions, nearly all of the pirates boarded the San Cristobal.
Moving the fight from the deck of the Argonaut to the wider spaces of the San Cristobal had always been part of the plan. Not surprisingly, any ship upon which a battle is fought often retains major damage to its decks and rigging. The smaller ship was especially vulnerable to damage since her sails were not in place. Not to mention, the clean up of blood and bodies afterward--it was inconvenient and the stench could be awful. Launching a large portion of the crew towards the San Cristobal would keep the Spaniards off the Argonaut.
As part of the visible deck crew, Will and Erin were among the first to swing over to the larger ship. Almost immediately, superior numbers engaged them both. Erin used every ounce of cunning and stealth that she had at her disposal. When the arc of the rope she clung to reached its zenith, she swung herself high into the air, and kicked one of the enemy in the head. This knocked him out as she had landed on the main deck. She turned him over, and drove her sword into his chest. He died without regaining consciousness and never knew what hit him. When the first three Spaniards came at her, she used her superior speed to out run them until more reinforcements arrived. As more and more pirate streamed onto the galleon, Erin no longer needed to run from multiple opponents, and she was able to take on a single man at a time. The reckless machismo of the Spaniards who fought Erin proved to be their downfall. One by one, she engaged a man in swordplay, feinting and backing up until a weakness showed itself. Three dead men into the fight, and Erin's sword ran so red with blood, she had trouble holding it in her hand. She grabbed a handful of sash from her latest kill and used it to wipe both the blood and sweat from her hands and face. When originally learning to use a sword, the student who taught her gave her one very valuable piece of information. Few people, he said, guard their hands during a sword fight. You can thrust to their knees, and when they parry, slice up along their blade until you hit their fingers. As a smaller opponent, he continued, you need every advantage, and while hitting the hand of another swordsman is dirty pool, no one cares when you're fighting for your life.
Erin had become so adept at swordplay, that she rarely needed to use this trick. She herself had commissioned her own sword paid for with her share of the booty. It was a rapier, but with some added thickness to its two-sided blade, and a smaller, solid swept-hilt that covered her hand and provided better grip. The longer the battle, the better the swordsmen that survived, and Erin's opponents got better as the minutes ticked on. Luckily for her and her shipmates, very few of the Spaniards had swept-hilts on their swords, and the fight was over quickly once their vulnerable fingers were quickly cut off.
Erin had just finished dispatching her fifth victim, when she spotted Will locked in battle with a man at least twice his size. At that time, Will was tall, but very thin. The sheer weight of the attacking Spaniard would have been enough to force Will down if he wasn't so wiry. Still, the fight had gone on for some time, and it was evident that Will was tiring. As the young pirate started to swing for the Spaniard's right side, he lost his footing in some of the blood pooling on deck. Will went down hard on his back, the force of which knocked the wind form his lungs and the sword from his hand. The Spaniard, seeing his chance, raised his weapon high above his head to deal a final, decisive deathblow. For long seconds his hands remained in the air, and Will wondered what the giant was waiting for, when suddenly, the man twisted to his right and fell onto the deck with a thundering collapse. The young man turned from the face of his fallen enemy to see Erin standing only inches away. "Tsk, tsk," she said, "When will they ever learn that move leaves you wide open. Bastard's lucky I didn't cut out his heart." Erin approached the now dead man, and roughly pulled her sword from his back. "Need a hand up?" she asked Will. He grinned up at her, and took her hand as she pulled him to his feet.
"Thanks, Skinner," he enthused, "I would've had the bloke if it weren't for this bloody mess."
Erin looked at him skeptically, but kept her own counsel, "Don't mention it, Morgan. You'd do the same for me."
"In a heartbeat," Will affirmed.
While the battle still raged around them, it was very apparent that their side was winning. Most of the Spaniards were wounded, dead, or dying on the deck. It would have been the prudent time to surrender, but it seemed the Spanish captain was stubborn. He would see his crew slaughtered before they surrendered to pirates. And the pirate crew was only too happy to oblige. Prisoners were difficult to deal with on the high seas. Whether these men were killed in the skirmish, or tumped overboard afterward made no difference to the cutthroats.
Secure in their victory, the pirate captain ordered a contingent of his crew to search out any Spanish stragglers and look for movable treasure, including not only gold but food and water stores as well. Erin and Will joined five others on this search, and spent nearly an hour roaming every deck of the galleon. They met little resistance in the galley and its storage area. There, they counted several dozen large barrels of water and wine along with provisions of cheese, dried meat, salted pork and fish, and limes. The latter was especially valuable in treating the most dreaded of pirate diseases-scurvy.
They had little luck, however, finding gold of any kind until they happened upon a storage room guarded by three men. Every pirate knew-where there were guards, there was treasure. The Spaniards were quickly dispatched, and the storage door busted open. The room was filled nearly to the brim with Spanish coin, minted in the New World for transport back to Europe. Never in her life had Erin seen so much wealth. It was enough to make the crew of the Argonaut all rich men indeed. Stowing it all on the ship, however, would be problematic.
It was Erin's idea to remove all of the treasure to the island, and keep it stashed with the booty they'd deployed earlier. The island location was remote and not often visited, which is why they had stopped there to repair the sails in the first place. The crew was well versed in the island location, having used it a number of times, so losing the gold would not be an issue. From this ideal spot, the crew could access their fortune any time that the other pickings were slim. Should any man decide to 'retire' from piracy, he would receive his full share of the booty. Until that time, however, it was given out in smaller increments to last as long as possible. It so happened that 8 of the crew decided they'd had enough of risking their lives in miserable conditions, and each was given his share and dropped off at the closest port of call. To prevent any of the retiring men from returning to the island and claiming all of the gold, it was moved each time the remaining crew accessed it. No one planning to leave the crew permanently would be allowed to know the last 3 locations.
It was a fair system, and it worked beautifully. Erin and Will still frequented the island when supplies ran low. The booty was especially important to Erin now that she used her ship to capture slavers more than gold. She certainly was not going to share these ill begotten gains with her new 'boss' the Queen.
All of these events ran through Will's mind as he sat next to Erin's bed looking at her. Carefully, he reached over and shook her shoulder to wake her. If he wasn't careful, he could end up on the business end of the knife she still kept in a hiding spot near the bed. Before he touched her, however, she uttered with her eyes still closed, "I'm awake, Will. How long have you been sittin' there, you bilge rat?"
"Long enough to hear you snore like thunder."
Erin opened her one eye, "I do not snore," She replied haughtily.
"Ya do," Will replied, "great whooshing sounds. Before I came in I t'ought it were a storm brewin'."
Erin only scowled and tried to keep from laughing at the silly grin plastered on Will's face. "Why are you here? I thought I said to keep an eye on the prisoners?"
"Indeed ya did, Cap'n Skinner. I am, 'owever, the only one ye trust to fix ye when yer broke. And right now, unless I'm much mistaken, yer broke."
Erin winced as she tried to sit up, "Do you have to be right all the time, Mr. Morgan?"
Will laughed, and helped Erin get up from the bed and into a chair where he could examine her. "Yer lucky I'm right most of the time. Keeps you outta trouble at any rate, bucko. Now lift up yer shirt for me like a good girl." Will sharply inhaled as Erin lifted her shirt to reveal a deep purple bruise covering her entire left side. "Ouch. That'll wake ya up in the mornin', eh?"
"Yes, damn it, it hurts like a son of a...could you please bind it and not provide the commentary?" Will looked a bit hurt, so Erin continued, "I'm sorry Will. It just hurts, and I'm cranky, and now is no time to have visitors on board, and stop pouting."
Will scowled, "I was not poutin'. Keep it up, bucko, and you'll 'ave to do this yerself."
"And don't call me 'bucko.' You know I hate it."
"Riiiigghhhtt. And I always do wot yew say."
Erin replied indignantly, "Hey, I AM Captain, ya know. I could have you keelhauled for insubordination."
"Insub...insubord...what the bloody hell is that?"
"I believe it means you're in deep shit for being such a smart ass," replied Erin drolly.
"Well, why didntcha say so in the first place?"
The easy banter continued as Will dressed Erin's ribs, trying to distract her from the pain it was causing. "By the way," Will said as he finished up, "Did ya know that any man can be bought fer a price?"
"That so?" said Erin, "And where did you come about this bit o' knowledge?"
"Seems a certain dark haired woman is dyin' to get home, and wants me to help her get there. She's offered a tidy sum. Wot do ya have to offer me to keep me, eh, Skinner?"
Erin was furious, "I told that wench she'd get dropped off same as everyone else. She dares to try to bribe members of my crew...?"
Will held up his hands in a placating gesture, "Whoa, whoa. Whatcha gettin' so worked up about? Yew'd do the same damn thing in 'er shoes."
Erin paused, then lost her fury and actually started laughing, much to her consternation because it made the pain in her side tremendous. Shaking her head, she said, "You're right, Will. There's just something about that woman that infuriates me."
Will got a knowing look on his face. Erin saw it, and said an exasperated, "What??"
Will stroked his chin thoughtfully, "Seems I recall another certain someone who infur...inf...made yew mad on sight. She don't do it now though, does she?"
Erin barked a laugh, "This is different, Will. Not even remotely the same. Delia made me mad on purpose and tried to make me jealous. She had her eye on me from the beginning. This woman's just a pain in the ass. Besides, what Delia and I have now is all I want. I don't need to get attached to some slave-owning, spoiled brat."
Will smirked in response, and Erin swatted him across the arm. "Off with you now, Mr. Morgan. I've got to sleep a bit. My side's killin' me. Can you keep everyone out of here for a day or two?"
"Already done," Will replied, "Jonas and I are taking shifts. Yew've asked us not to disturb yew as yer plottin' our next big plunder, and our next trip to Grand Caymen."
"Ooo, I am a generous captain, am I not Will?" Erin asked.
"That yew are indeed, ma'am. 'Sides, I wont to see Gisele and yew wont to see Delia, and the men...well, the men just wont to see some women."
"Grand Cayman, it is. Since we've just battled without reward, so to speak, I think it's time we visit our little hidaway and grab some gold. I don't want to tire the men unnecessarily."
"Like I said," laughed Will, "generous to a fault yew are Skinner."
True to his word, Will kept everyone out of Erin's cabin for the next several days. By the time they docked in Tortola, Erin was able to move about with little difficulty. She couldn't fight worth a darn, but dropping off her cargo didn't require a fight. Disembarking with Will, she quickly located the dwelling she sought-the Governor's Mansion. Never ones to do things the conventional way, rather than knocking at the front gate, she and Will sneaked onto the grounds, past the posted guards, and scurried up some handy bougainvilleas to a second floor balcony. As it happened, this balcony was attached to John Dudley's personal office, and he was currently at his desk engaged in the household books. So absorbed was he in his task, he failed to hear Will or Erin until she spoke up. "Dontcha love to see a man so dedicated to his work, Will?"
Dudley threw his hands in the air at the sound, tossing papers over the floor. "Yeah," Will replied, his arms folded across his chest, leaning against the door frame, "good to know the Islands are in such capable hands."
Dudley held his hand across his now rapidly beating heart, and forgot himself so much as to shout, "You fools! Don't you know better than to sneak up on me like that!? Heart conditions run in my family!"
Will's eyes narrowed, "Do you t'ink he's callin' us 'fools'?"
Erin smirked, "Mr. Dudley? Nooo. He's too smart for that. He knows we'd run him through as look at him if the word 'fools' was aimed at us."
These words did nothing to calm Dudley's hammering heart, but they did change his demeanor. "Ahhh, Captain Skinner, and Mr. Morgan, so good to see you. Forgive my levity, but you quite startled me."
"Quite alright, Mr. Dudley." Erin looked around. Although Dudley's personal fortune was next to nil, the Governor's house was decorated in the finest that England would allow. The office was lavishly furnished. "Nice place you got here." She walked over to his desk, sat one hip on its edge, and picked up a pearl handled letter opener. Whistling, she said, "This must've cost a good penny. I don't have one like this myself, but it sure is nice."
Dudley piped up, "P-please, feel free to take it. As a gift. What's mine is yours."
Erin feigned surprise, "Why, thank you Mr. Dudley. Very kind of you. Actually, what I believe my esteemed colleague and would like more is to bend your ear a tick. That is, if you have the time."
"Of course, of course," Dudley said, standing to reach for a pull cord. "Let me just...." Before the words were out, however, Will had his sword at Dudley's throat.
"Ah, ah, ah," Will chastised, "Wouldn't want any uninvited guests to out little party, now would we?"
"Ummmm, no. No. Of course not. I was just going to ring for some refreshments before we sat to talk." Dudley was now sweating profusely.
Erin piped up, "I'm sure Mr. Dudley did not mean to call his guards, Will. You can put your weapon away."
Will sheathed his sword, but stood by and did his best to look menacing without laughing.
Erin continued, "Perhaps we should sit on the couch over here, John...do you mind if I call you John?" Dudley shook his head and followed Erin to the couches. They both sat and Will sat on the arm of the couch next to Erin, towering over the proceedings. "Here's the deal, John...Because I signed the Letter of Marque, a letter that you brought to me, I am now beholdin' to the Queen, am I not?" Dudley nodded affirmatively as Erin continued, "As it happens, I recently assisted a number of English citizens who had been captured and were to be sold as slaves."
Dudley interrupted and commented with disdain, "Black English citizens? I have not heard of such a thing."
Erin replied, disgusted, "Pay attention, John. These were WHITE English citizens, most of them females. They were going to be sold into a world of depravity that no English lady should ever experience. Do you understand what I'm saying now?"
Dudley whispered, "Good Lord."
Erin smirked, "I doubt the good Lord has anything to do with it. At any rate, I was able to thwart the efforts of these slavers and rescue these woman."
Dudley perked up, "Well, smashing! Good show, Captain Skinner."
"Thank you, John. I'm so glad you approve." Erin's sarcasm was lost on her audience, so she continued, "Here's the rub. I've got all of the slavers that aren't dead on my ship. Some of these men are wanted, and there's a reward for their capture. I also have in my possession, not only English citizens, but French, Spanish and Dutch as well. Here's what I propose: I'll hand over the wanted men to you. You can collect the reward on each of them. I'll not bother you for a penny. In return, you provide safe harbor for each of the former prisoners, including room and board, until they all can catch ships home."
Dudley blanched, "Room and board? For how many people did you say?"
"There are 25 people on my ship who need such assistance," Erin replied.
"And do you know how much these so-called rewards might amount to?"
Erin paused and thought, "Hmmm. Let's see, there's Timothy the Black. He's worth 30 quid or so. Hmm. Maybe 75 to 100 pounds total for the lot."
"You want me to risk treason by providing succor to the enemy, for a measly 100 pounds?" Dudley was incredulous.
Erin became deadly quiet, "I want you to aid a group of women and men who have been terrified beyond their wits. You know, as well as I, that you can hide these people in a number of locations around the island, including enclaves of their own countrymen. And don't pretend you don't know that French, Spanish and Dutch traders exist here. If you don't you're a piss poor Governor not to know what's happening on your own island."
Dudley, not sensing the danger in Erin's change of demeanor, complained, "That is all well and good, but it'll cost me nearly the whole hundred just to provide such food and lodging for 25 people for heaven knows how long."
Erin could see that threatening the man at this point would do no good. There would be no guarantee that he'd keep his word anyway. She tried a different tack. "Very well," she said. "We tried to get him to see reason, right Will?" Will nodded, a bit confused at Erin's sudden cheerfulness. "That's it then. Thank ye kindly for your time, Mr. Dudley. We'll be shoving off."
Dudley, as confused as Will, exclaimed, "B-but...if you don't mind my asking, what will you do now?"
Erin, who was heading back to the balcony, said over her shoulder, "Well, we'll just have to let everyone go. I can't keep 35 extra people on my ship indefinitely."
"Let everyone go?" squeaked Dudley, "Let them go where?"
"Why on the island, of course." Erin continued, "That Timothy, he's a hell raiser, eh Will?"
Will could hardly contain his laughter, "Oh aye, that he is. Weren't it him wot burnt down the soldier's garrison at Kingston?"
Before Erin could answer, Dudley raised his hand and said, "Enough! I know when I'm beat. I'll take your deal, Captain Skinner. I'll have my soldiers meet your ship at the docks and escort the prisoners to the gaol."
Erin grinned, "And the other matter?"
Dudley sighed, "I'll personally see to it. My servants know all parts of the island, and can find the enclaves that you speak of."
"Good. Thank you much for your help, Governor Dudley. It's been a pleasure." Erin and Will turned again to go.
Dudley piped up, "Before you go, Captain, can I trouble you for a favor?"
Erin paused, "You can ask...not sure you'll get it though."
"Could you please find safe harbor on another island for a while? I'm not sure my coffers can take much more of your 'generosity'."
"Mr. Dudley! Tsk, tsk, tsk. Need I remind you of the contents of the Letter that you asked me to sign? The Queen herself requests that you provide for my needs. How would it look if I didn't turn to you?" Erin scolded. Before Dudley could respond, she and Will were over the side of the balcony, and working their way across the garden to the back wall of the estate.
Cecile waited under cover of darkness before slipping back aboard the Argonaut. Despite Captain Skinner's assurances that each person would find food and lodging until they could catch a ship to their respective homes, Cecile felt sure that catching a Spanish ship from an English island would be nearly impossible.
Because the Argonaut crew had not succumbed to her bribes, she developed a modicum of respect for the female commander, and would like to have interacted more with the woman had she not been holed up in her cabin the entire way to Tortola. Still, she heard the crew discussing the captain's plans to stop on Grand Cayman for some rest and relaxation, and saw her chance to get home more quickly. Grand Cayman was only a stone's throw from Jamaica, and she could easily hire a boat from the freer port that was Bodden Town. In fact, she could hire anything she wanted in Bodden Town. It was the island's red light district and catered every imaginable taste. Cecile, ever curious, had visited there on one of her father's buying trips to North Town on the other side of Grand Cayman Island. Disguised as a man, she was accosted by several prostitutes of all ages and sexes. She had a difficult time trying not to laugh when some of the more outlandish suggestions were thrown her way. It had been a great adventure, one that her father knew nothing about, and experience she could put to good use on her way home.
Cecile had exited the Argonaut earlier in the day with all of the other passengers. Captain Skinner had by that time come out of seclusion, and she went to personally thank her for rescuing her and Stephanie. The captain, however, saw her coming, and immediately a scowl formed on her beautiful features. Cecile almost thought better of her decision, then conceded it would be rude to ignore the woman.
"Captain Skinner?" she queried, "May I have a word with you?"
Erin turned so that she fully faced Cecile. She did not reply to the query, but now had an expectant look on her face. Cecile thought this encouraging and continued, "I never had an opportunity to properly thank you and your crew for rescuing me and my friend."
Erin was visibly stunned, and for some reason Cecile counted it as quite a coup to surprise the captain. She imagined that few people did anything that the captain was not fully aware of from the start. Erin responded, "No thanks are necessary, Miss Rembert. I wish you safe journey."
Ahh, thought Cecile, she remembered my name. "Be that as it may, it was very brave of you to attempt such a rescue. Should you ever find yourself in Jamaica, I hope you will partake of my hospitality."
Erin's expression was grim, "Bravery had nothing to do with it, Miss. I abhor slavery in any form. Scared or no, I would not allow anyone to exist in such a state if I could prevent it. As for your hospitality, I appreciate the offer, but I know your plantation is sustained on the backs of others, and I would not feel comfortable in that environment."
Cecile, whose views on slavery were not far from Erin's, was nonetheless insulted. It wasn't her fault that her father kept slaves! It was even her plan to free all of them once she came into the estate. Cecile opened her mouth in retort, then thought better of it, and closed it firmly. It would do no good to argue with the woman. Apparently, Captain Skinner had made her mind up about Cecile without even bothering to get to know her. Cecile said a clipped, "Bon voyage," and practically ran down the gangplank.
Cecile was met on the dock by a tearful Stephanie, who gave her a quick hug and kiss goodbye. She was going to live with her Aunt in Spain, the only living relative she had. Cecile offered her what money she could, and wished the young girl a safe journey. Cecile had managed to hide several gold coins sewn in the hem of her dress. She would like to have given Stephanie more, but she needed most all of it to get home safely.
Cecile did not board any of the coaches supplied by the Governor. Instead, she set off on foot, heading into the crowded streets of Tortola looking for a specific shop. She did not have to look long, and soon came upon a tailor's. She went in, and purchased off the rack a pair of men's black pants, a black silk shirt, and a blue jacket. Next, she stopped at a milliner's and purchased stockings and a dark blue scarf, and finally saw the boot maker about a pair of boots. Normally, she would have to wait for these to be custom made, but her luck was holding, and the boot maker had an extra pair just made for a man who had died and who never came to get them. The boots were a couple of sizes too large for Cecile, but she bought them anyway. She also slipped the shopkeeper's pipe into her pocket while he polished her new purchase. Her ensemble was complete. Now she needed only to wait for night to slip unnoticed back onto the Argonaut. The dark clothing would certainly assist in this endeavor, and she needed men's clothing to sneak stealthily onto the ship and hide out for what could be a couple of weeks. Sneaking and hiding in skirts was impossible.
By the time she'd finished her errands, dusk was only an hour or so away. Cecile decided her best course was to wait at the dock, checking the comings and goings on board the Argonaut. That way, she would have a firm idea of who moved about the ship and at approximately what times. She could not, however, wait unnoticed dressed as she was, so she walked a fair distance from town, into the island jungle, to change her clothing. Once finished, she buried her tattered dress, and returned to the village. Catching site of herself in the warped glass of a shop window, she was startled to see the transformation. She had thought she might need to remain as inconspicuous as possible until night fell; however, she managed to look every bit the pirate in her current attire. The kerchief hid her feminine hair, and the loose fitting shirt and pants made her exact gender questionable.
She spent the remainder of her evening sitting in the shadows of some nearby trees. With her back against the nearest trunk, and the unlit pipe in her mouth, she hoped to look like an unemployed dockworker or sailor. To complete the illusion, she had drummed up an empty wine bottle, filled it with water, and occasionally swigged its contents, providing a reason for her inactivity. She needn't have gone to such lengths, since it looked like nearly all of the Argonaut's crew had opted for entertainment in town. Remaining on the ship were Captain Skinner, her first mate, and a few of the older crewmembers. From her vantage point, she could see the female captain leaning on the port railing, her hands clasped loosely in front of her. Beside her, the first mate, Cecile remembered his name as Will, also leaned casually on the deck rail. She could see that they were having a lively discussion, and at one point, Captain Skinner threw back her head and laughed uproariously at some comment made by the first mate. While Cecile could not hear what was being said, she could see the Captain smile and shake with laughter. Pity she's a pirate, thought Cecile, she's quite lovely, especially when she smiles like that. I wonder why she didn't remain in Ireland. She's educated. I could tell that by her language. What would an educated Irish woman want with these cutthroats?
Cecile did not have long to ponder these thoughts, when the captain and first mate were approached by another crewmember. It appeared to be the cook, so she assumed they were being summoned to eat. The last remnants of the evening sun were casting long shadows across the water. Cecile knew her time was near, and slunk deeper into the shadows to avoid detection. When it appeared that there was no more activity on the deck of the ship, Cecile slipped from the canopy of shadows, and under the night sky. Again, her luck was holding, as it was a clear, moonless night with only the faintest vestiges of sunlight over the western horizon. Cecile moved noiselessly toward the Argonaut's gangplank, and ducked under the small crawlspace where it met the dockside. There she remained for some moments, listening for any sounds of people above. Hearing nothing but the slap of water against the hull, she emerged from her hiding place, and started up the rough planks. She remained crouched low, almost on her knees, and slowly but steadily made her way toward the deck. As she neared the top, she lay on her stomach, and peered over the top. The deck was bathed in the soft light of two torches, but there were plenty of shadowy places for her to slip into. She eased herself up, and hopped lightly onto the surface of the main deck, quickly moving into the indistinct edges of the torchlight. From the shadows, she waited, breathing slightly heavy from her recent exertion and the excitement of sneaking aboard. Again, she could neither see nor hear anyone moving about. Her plan was to hide in the hold among the food stores. There, she could remain for the entire trip to Bodden Town, and not go hungry in the process. The next steps, however, were the most risky. She could not sneak into the galley from her current location without the possibility of being seen by the cook, whom she knew was still aboard the ship. She would have to reach the food stores via the trap door on the main deck, which was almost mid-deck, and currently clearly visible in the light. Steeling her nerve, she was about to head for the door, when Captain Skinner emerged from her cabin. Cecile ducked back into the dark without being seen. She was, however, in a very precarious position. Having nothing but the dark in which to hide, should the Captain walk in her direction, it was quite likely she would be found. Cecile made herself as small a target as possible by hunching down on the deck and curving her arms around her legs into a ball. She could see the Captain and first mate, the Captain was yawning and stretching, clearly tired. Will rubbed the side of his stubbled face with his hand, and yawned as well. Cecile could now hear every word they said.
"Well, Erin," Will started, "I t'ink it's aboot time I turn in."
"Come have a smoke with me, William."
"Ach, you know I can't stomach that stuff," Will made a distasteful face.
"Well then, keep your old Captain comp'ny while I have one," Erin replied, swatting Will on the stomach with the back of her hand.
"Oof. 'Old' indeed," Will scoffed, "wot does that make me, ancient, then?"
"You said it I didn't," Erin said laughingly. She took a cheroot from an inside jacket pocket, struck a match against the door of her cabin, and lit it. The flare of the match briefly lit Erin's face, and Cecile was struck once again by the softness and beauty of Erin's face.
"Where do ya get them nasty t'ings, anyway?" asked Will.
"Hmmm," said Erin, taking a puff, "used to be Delia'd keep a store of them for me. This one, however, came from the good Governor's office."
Will smiled, "Didn't even see ya swipe it. Yer getting' good." He coughed and waved his hand in the air in front of his face, "I don't know how Delia can kiss yew while yer smokin' one of them t'ings."
Erin pulled the small cigar out of her mouth, and deliberately blew smoke in Will's direction, "She kisses me just fine, bucko. And that's all you'll hear on that subject."
Will pretended to look crestfallen, "Oh, come on Erin, yew know I live fer it. One little detail. That's all I ask. I can die a happy man. Is she heaven in the sheets or wot?"
"Why, Will Morgan, you dirty old man, you," Erin laughed, "I'll not kiss and tell, unlike some people I know." She held up a hand to stop him, as Will tried to say something, "I didn't ask for details of your love life, nor do I want any. Now, go to sleep, and dream of Gisele, for tomorrow we sail for Grand Caymen."
To be continued in "Letter of the Law."
Coming soon in June, 2002.