Story by Derek Eklund
Illustration by Carol Wellart
And now the body has to be dug up. So soon after the funeral too. Captain Jenks grunts and waves a hand, telling me to get on with it. My shovel stabs into the sand, made loose by the burial. Jenks moves back and forth idly, his fists stuffed into the pockets of his breeches. A breeze comes in off the water, and I take a moment to let it cool the sweat that trickles down my cheeks.
Groans come intermittently from the man tied to the tree, his bald sunburnt head sagging against his chest. His friend is the one under the ground.
Jenks glances my way and swirls two fingers in a circular motion. Get on with it.
The job gets tougher the deeper you go— the sand is heavy with moisture. The tip of my blade strikes something hard and I begin to dig around it. A belt buckle glints under the packed sand, and Jenks motions for two men to help me excavate the body. Two swarthy men drop into the pit and begin sweeping the sand away with their hands. I set the blade into the dirt and rest my hands atop each other and the handle, watching them work.
One of them grabs the sandy corpse by the lapels and begins pulling it out of the pit. The other leaps out of the grainy grave and turns to Jenks, waiting for an order.
Jenks grunts. “Whaddaya want me to do? Hold yer hand?”
One of the men unsheathes a broad sabre and examines it as he tilts it back and forth, the sun winking off the steel. With a quick motion, he grabs the handle with both hands and drives the blade into the sternum of the dead man. He cuts down with yanking strokes, cracking open the chest and splitting the belly down the seam.
Rotting flesh and crawling maggots ooze from the chasm in the body. The two sellswords each grip a side of the ribcage and begin wrenching it back, exposing the meat of the body. Waves of the odor sweep up and hang in the air around us, trapped in the humidity. The man to my right unleashes a torrent of vomit onto the sand between his boots.
“Cap’n,” the bound man croaks, his lips cracked and blistering, “I told you where the loot is. Unbind me if ya have it in yer heart.”
Jenks doesn’t respond but loops his thumbs beneath the wide black belt that sits low on his waist. He moves cautiously to the body, his eyes focused on the lumps of innards that his men heap onto the sand.
One of the men cradles the bloated sac of a stomach and sets it softly onto the sand. With a knife he delicately cuts a line into the blubbery flesh, revealing the last meal of fish and gold coins. He begins stacking the slimy coins in neat piles on the sand as Jenks sniffs and watches. Jenks tells him to rip open the cord that dangles beneath the stomach and the man does so as his partner picks out coins hidden in the digestive tract.
The carcass is stripped of all its treasure and one of the men shoves the stiff body back into the grave with the heel of his boot. He toes the trailing innards slithering in after the body.
The banker of digested coins counts his stacks a final time and glances up at Jenks. “`Tis only half.”
Jenks palms an elbow, the ringed pointer of his clasped arm tapping his upper lip. He spins and looks to the bound man with a raised brow.
The sunburnt prisoner opens his mouth and his lips jiggle. “I-I dunno where the rest is. Maybe he shit the other half oot.”
Jenks’ eyes lift toward the fresh blue morning sky, hang there for a moment and then flit my way. “Henry, if yeh was tis man’s partnah in crime, what would yeh do?” The mouth behind the tousle of black beard splits to reveal a yellow smile.
I consider this a moment and grin back. “Eat my share.”
“So ‘tis.” Jenks nods with vigor at me and waves the back of a jeweled hand in the bound man’s direction. The two amateur surgeons split around the grave toward the palm tree.
The bound man begins blubbering frantically, calling out promises to clean the coins to a shine after they come out naturally. One of the men inspects the blade, still coated with the guts of the dead man, and then touches his fingers to right above the man’s sternum.
The blubbering is now frantic screeching.
The dirty sword is driven into the chest and the man’s screams are cut off with the severance of his vocal cords. His head dips to look down wide-eyed as his own chest is torn open like his old friend’s. The eyes take on a glazed look and the muscles in the man’s neck go slack.
Fresh blood, meat, and coins spill out onto the sand and Jenks gives a satisfied sigh as he rocks back and forth on his heels. One of the men rips a stretch of cloth from the freshly deceased man’s shirt and lays it flat against the sand. His partner dislodges the coins from the guts, and together, they begin to pile the loot into the center of the shirt.
They collect all the filthy coins into the strip of cloth and then wrap it up like a delicate newborn. One of the men squints up at Jenks, as his partner cradles the bundle to his chest and grins. Jenks jerks his head toward the shore and we trudge to the beached rowboat.
I nod back at the palm tree as the men shove the boat into shallow water. “No burial?”
Jenks palms the pommel of his blade and tilts it in his belt thoughtfully. “Nah,” he says and begins to wade into the water beside the boat. “Traitors don’ get into heaven so what’s the point?”
We get in, and I grab ahold of the oars. Jenks sits in the back of the boat, his arms draped around the wooden lip and the ankle of a sandy boot resting on a knee. He takes off his hat and tilts his head to catch the sun’s warmth, his eyelids clamped shut. The men are cleaning the coins in the water as we go.
I crane my neck to look at the old slave ship that sits in the cove and lift an oar from the water to make sure we remain on course.
One of the men clears his throat. “Cap’, what’s the plan now?”
Jenks tilts his head back to scratch beneath his chin, his eyes still closed. “Stop yer worrying about plans. Have yeh ever had a reason to doubt me?”
“No, suh,” he says. I glance at the man who spoke up and follow the rise and fall of his adam’s apple. “It’s just that—”
“Charlestown has what yeh want, James,” Jenks says and his eyes snap open, the pale blue irises settling on the man. Jenks inspects the dirt beneath his crusty, jagged fingernails. “We’ll sell what we got and take what we want afore we leave the place.”
A smile spreads across James’ lips. “Charlestown,” he says and repeats the name softly to himself as we approach the belly of the galleon.
A ladder is unraveled from the deck above and Jenks motions with his hat for us to climb aboard. The man above me on the ladder starts yammering to no one in particular about Charlestown. “I heard tey got plenny of cunts to choose from ter.”
I tune him out and crane my neck over a shoulder. Jenks is still sitting there looking out over the water, the same ankle draped over the same knee.
I swing my legs over the gunwale just as the contents of the haul are dumped into a clattering heap onto the deck. A cheer goes up among those gathered on hand and a small ancient man with a twisted back hops around offering a dark liquid from a bottle. He hobbles my way and thrusts the bottle under my nose, his lips parted to reveal a gummy smile. I wave my hand, no, and he shuffles along to find a drinking partner.
A barrel of a man saddles beside me and his eyes scan the deck. “Where’s the captain?”
I nod back over my shoulder towards the ladder. On cue, Jenks’ dingy three-cornered hat and impish grin peer above the rim of the galleon and a roar rolls through the deck. The stooped man staggers up to Jenks as the captain’s boots touch the floor, and Jenks calls for cups to be passed around to everyone. The old man does a jig of joy and laughter fills the deck.
Barrel leans his bearded head close to my ear. “He’s been acting up, eh?”
I don’t respond and eye Jenks as he applauds the dancing efforts of his prized jester.
The cook bearing cups offers me one and I shake my head, no. Jenks sees this and heads my way. “Have a drink, Henry. You never know when it’ll be yer last.” His eyes remain fixed on my own as the cook shoves a cup into my hand and the jester pours me a good measure of the stuff.
Jenks raises the cup and his eyes dart around the deck. “Ay ay ay,” he calls, and all attention turn to Jenks as his boots walk in a circle around the edges of the crowd. He spins on a heel and thrusts his cup toward me. “To honest friends, eh?”
A cheer goes up and everyone downs their drink. Jenks pauses with his cup by his lips and locks eyes with me again. He tilts his head back with the cup, wipes his lips on a sleeve, nods my way. “Grab him.”
Calloused hands grab ahold of my wrist and the weight of a couple men drives my face into the splintered floorboards. My arm is pinched behind my back as I look up through strands of hair at Jenks as he approaches. Twine is cinched around my wrists.
A call filters down from the masts above and much of it is warped by the wind but the message is clear nonetheless; a ship is coming. A fluttering of limbs overtakes the deck as men move into positions and bodies begin to climb the latticed rigging.
Jenks nods to the stern of the ship. “Let’s take a walk, eh?”
I’m lifted by two slabs of stone for men, and I see the Barrel’s wide eyes and flared nostrils as I’m carried past, toes skidding.
I can taste iron. The blood might be from my mouth but also might be from a broken nose. Either way, it’s flowing past my chin and onto my shirt.
Jenks places a palm on the railing and gazes past the towering limestone islands that act as sentries to the cove’s entrance. A glimpse of white sails and Her Majesty’s flag come between a pair of the jutting formations. Jenks turns to me and takes out a handkerchief. He folds the cloth neatly and wipes the blood from my face, shakes his head with a concerned look, and stuffs the handkerchief into my shirt. His eyes glance to the boulders behind me. “Leave us.” At first, they don’t move but all Jenks has to do is raise an eyebrow and the dull thumping of their boots moves down the deck. His eyes flit back and forth between my own. “Why’d yeh have to be such a cunt?” His hand moves to grab ahold of the rope that binds me.
I swallow a good bit of blood and cough.
Jenks unhinges a latch on the railing and opens it up to the roiling water below. The ship’s going at a decent clip now.
“Wait,” I say.
“Shhhh,” Jenks says. “Tis alright. Yeh get to go back to ya King.” He unsheathes a dagger from his belt and looks over the waters of the cove. “Ya know…” he says but the thought trails off. He looks at me and then shakes the thought from his head. “Ahh, fuck it.”
I’m under the water now and everything’s muted. The murky water will be the last thing I see on this Earth.
I kick with frantic strokes and am surprised to find my hands unbound. They cup the water down, and I breach the surface. I suck air I was sure I wouldn’t taste again, and I float there, watching the Good Queen’s Snatch glide away. Jenks stands there by the open railing lighting a thin cigar.
Fuck it. I turn towards the limestone towers where the fat galleon is making its way into the cove.
It’s been years. Three, almost four now? Will I know the captain of the ship? Probably not. He’ll have the grey wig that gives the men of the Snatch side stitches. Jenks one time got ahold of a wig from a captured lieutenant and the whole deck was alive with laughter as the captain pranced around and made prissy stabbing motions with his blade.
My hands are free, and he could’ve let me drown. My stroke slows down with the approach of the hulking vessel and I pump my arms to get to the side of the ship. I see men on the railing and I start waving my hand and yelling what I can without swallowing seawater. One of the men turns and leans over the railing to get a better look at me.
He disappears from view and I start calling for a line. No one else seems to hear but then a thickly knotted rope quivers in front of the sun and smacks the water, meters from my head. I grab ahold, and my hands move up the frayed rope until I’m by the hull. The climb up sends tremors through my spent arms. Halfway up I squeeze my sodden boots around a knot and crane my neck to the sides and up. There’s a gun poking out from above and I haul myself up to it. My breathing is labored as I drape an arm around the muzzle of the bronze cannon. I take a moment to marvel at the shine in the gun and I hear the hammer of a flintlock drawn back. I squint into the dark by the base of the cannon and make out two hunched figures and the pistol pointed my way.
I show my open palms. “No weapons,” I say. “Just here to see your captain.”
The two men take me in with dull eyes.
“He’s expecting me,” I say. It’s a half-truth.
The one with the pistol jabs the barrel of the weapon down the hall. “This way.”
I nod and climb over the gun and through the hole. I squeeze water from the tail of my shirt. I’m led down the hall by the pistol jammed in the small of my back. My boots slosh down the hall as cavernous eyes follow me— blank stares from privateers whose jobs sprouted from the antics of men like Jenks. I remember sitting in dank, low-ceilinged halls like this, waiting until we were close enough to Spanish galleons. That was almost a decade ago.
Then times of peace came. And that, in theory, should’ve been fine, but thousands of privateers had been made idle. So many of us did what we knew best— we sailed. Only a certain kind of king was hiring though.
Look at the bright side— our antics have created jobs again. Many of these young men would be unemployed if it wasn’t for us. War creates jobs. Jobs create purpose. We steal ships to give people meaning, really.
My boots squelch on the steps that lead out of the gun hall and onto the main deck. I’m greeted by the warm sun and squalling orders of officers. I turn around to look at the pistol-wielding sailor for guidance. In the light, I can see he’s just a kid— maybe sixteen. Tangles of greasy blonde hair form clumps that he mops to the side with the back of a wrist. He nods past me. “This way.”
Men in grey wigs stomp around the deck, yelling and pointing. The boy brings me to a wig by the main mast, standing with what seems a lack of jitters for what could be a coming battle. But then the Snatch is too fast and will get away. He looks young. His eyes flit my way, and he tilts his chin up at the boy. “This the one swimming our way?”
The boy nods. “Aye.”
The captain nods formally at the kid. “You are relieved.” The boy clomps back below deck, and the captain grabs ahold of a wrist behind his back, waiting for me to talk. I crimp the corners of my mouth down in an attempt to cover a smile. It doesn’t work though, and his eyebrows stitch. “Why shouldn’t I have you shot right here?”
I squint towards the sun. The Snatch is cruising along at a faster clip and starting to get away. “Because I’m employed by the Royal Navy.”
The captain scoffs at this. “Years ago, maybe. But you made a choice, didn’t you?”
I nod. “Aye. But Commodore Bonnet wouldn’t appreciate you killing me.”
The captain’s eyebrows relax somewhat. “Do you mean Vice Admiral Bonnet?”
I shrug. “It’s been a while.”
He glances at the retreating slave ship, back to me. “What, am I just supposed to accept another mouth to feed?”
I grin. “And weapons would be nice.”
Crimson floods the captain’s cheeks. “I can still toss you back overboard, and Bonnet will never know.”
I squeeze out some more saltwater from my shirt. “Aye, you could. But you’ll never catch that ship if you do.” I look up at him. “And you won’t get Edward Ainsley without me.”
The captain’s features go slack, and he looks to the small ship in the distance. “Ainsley is on there?”
“Yeh,” I say. “And I know where he’s going.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I tear off a chunk of crusty bread and chew with careful, deliberate motions. I don’t need my gums bleeding again. The Wig Captain peers over steepled fingers, watching me, his expression the one you would give when studying an exotic animal. I taste iron as I swallow.
“How do I know,” he says and brings his intertwined fingers onto the wood of his desk, “that this isn’t a trap?”
I take a smaller bite, raise my eyebrows, nod. Between a mouthful, I say, “could be.”
He shakes his head and says something about shame and lack of honor. I’m not really listening. I hate swallowing my own blood. “Look,” I say, “you would have no idea where he went if it wasn’t for me.” I swallow and wince. “At least you’ve got an opportunity now.”
There’s a knock on the door, and Lieutenant Wig enters. “Sir, there are no ships in the harbor.”
The Captain glares at me. “What am I supposed to do with an empty island?”
I look between the captain and his officer. “Really?” I say. “You don’t see this as a huge opportunity?”
Captain Wig rubs a palm against his chin, and the skin wrinkles between his brows. I examine the bread and put it on the edge of the captain’s desk. It’s not worth the effort. “Take over the island. Become governor if yeh want.” I wipe crumbs from my hand onto my new maroon breeches. “This has been their stronghold for years, and now you can change that.” The captain’s expression loosens somewhat, as the implications of this roll through his mind.
Frantic yelling trickles through the door from the deck, and the lieutenant leaves us to see what is going on above. I trace the butt of my loaned pistol with the pads of my fingers, and the captain watches my hand in thoughtful silence.
The door opens again, and the lieutenant returns in agitated form. “Sir, there’s two ships coming up the stern.” He swallows. “Coming for us.”
There’s a scraping of chair legs against wood as the three of us leave the Captain’s cabin. We climb the short flight of steps into the lowering orange sun that greets us on the deck. Nassau, or Charles’ Town, lies before us; a town once with a royal governor, the small island has since become a haven for us.
The captain and I lean against the railing, and sure enough, the old slave ship and a smaller sloop are heading our way.
“Ya know,” I say, “that sloop has no guns. If you don’t let them board, you could take them both.”
Captain Wig looks at me, the ships, and then his lieutenant. “We don’t have much of a choice anyway. Turn us around and get the men to their posts.”
The lieutenant nods, leaves us, starts barking out orders. There’s a flurry of limbs, and soon the ship veers in the cove to face the approaching ships. The Captain glares at me. “I’d advise you not to try anything. I’ve men ordered to watch you.” I peer over a shoulder and look around the deck that has become wild with movement. I turn back to him and shrug.
He storms off to make final preparations, and I stand there studying the two ships. The last four years of my life are on that ship— that former slave ship that Jenks took with ease.
The Snatch and the sloop split to either side, and the thunderous clap of a cannon rolls over the water. Too early to really aim well, the shot sails far behind us. Jenks just wants to upset nerves as soon as possible so the King’s sailors can stew in their anxiety for a bit. And now the Wig Captain unleashes a torrent of cannon fire to both sides in response. The floorboards rumble with the contained explosions beneath my feet, and a series of cheers go up from the deck— the Snatch has received a blow.
The cheers get swallowed up by more cannon fire. Someone from the ship’s stern starts yelling frantically, trying to raise his voice above the boom and crack and ripple of steel hurtling through the air. He jabs a finger behind the stern, and I lean over the railing for a better view.
A handful of rowboats are making their way beneath the hull. With all the attention on fighting on both sides, the rear has been forgotten. A lieutenant barks orders and boots stampede to the stern.
Something flies and glints in the sky— the deadly metallic water spider. The four legs of the inanimate beast drop onto the deck and scuttle back to the stern’s railing. The wood moans and splinters as the spikes dig in. One of the younger recruits leans over the railing to saw the rope.
A sharp crack sounds, and the sawing hand that returns is a mangled mess— a mass of tendons and splintered bone. He frowns at the pinky and ring fingers that dangle by sinewy threads from the hand. The nearby lieutenant sees the hand and orders return fire. Flintlock explosions fill the air, and my nostrils fill with the sour smell of spent gunpowder.
Half a dozen more glinting spiders dance in front of the coppery sun and make their nest in the stern’s railing. I gaze out to the side and see the sloop changing course to get away from the shower of cannon fire. On the other side, the Snatch has already turned and is headed in the other direction, white curls of foam shoved to either side.
The pace of cannon fire lessens as officers call for hands to move up deck. Two dirt-caked hands grip the edge of the railing and a wig fires into the man’s face. The hands drop, but a gun from below fires back, ripping a slug through the officer’s skull and sending globs of brain tissue through the other side. He drops to the deck with a wet thud, and the sailors pause to consider the change of events.
Another forearm is draped over the railing, and the sailors drift to the center of the deck. Captain Wig comes up from the gun deck, screaming himself hoarse, ordering for weapons to be aimed to the stern. The first grimy man rolls onto the deck and erects himself with sword in hand. The Captain orders for his men to hold until the guns can be fired into a cluster of bodies, but a young sailor fires early and misses. Captain Wig stamps his foot and demands for the men to hold their fire as more bodies make their way onto the deck.
Another shot ripples across the deck, catching an arm. Hammers engage their flint from both sides. Sabers and cutlasses scrape free from belts and scabbards. In the cloudy aftermath of gun smoke, the swords reflect the red from the sun. Bodies engage, and steel catches steel.
I see the familiar twirl of black tangles beneath the tri-cornered leather hat, and my hand moves to the pistol at my waist. Jenks doesn’t see me as he steps to the side of a sailor’s saber and cuts the man’s flesh from armpit to hip. A young middy raises a blade, but Jenks nicks the boy in the throat, sending a geyser of red into the air. I draw my hammer back and level the barrel at Jenk’s ear.
Jenks freezes and lets out a low laugh. Across the way, the Wig Captain sees the change in events as well. Jenks purses his lips, and a high whistle brings his men to a pause.
A young crewmate takes advantage of the recess to swing his sword, but the target parries and gives the kid a swift punch to the throat, crumpling him to the floor.
Captain Wig approaches with slow, cautious steps. His eyes glance my way and then lock with the light blue pools of Edward Ainsley.
Jenks lifts his eyes to the sky and shakes his tangled hair in exasperation. “So ‘tis.” He glances to the side, where the Snatch is in full retreat.
Captain Wig stands in front of Jenks with a smug smile plastered to his face. His eyes meet my own. “There might be decency in you yet.”
Laughter spills from Jenk’s big head, and I can’t help but laugh along with him. “That my gray-haired cunt,” he says, “is some of the lamest shit I ever ‘eard.”
The Captain’s eyes widen with rage and then slip into sad discs as I whirl the gun his direction and let the hammer fall. The Wig Captain collapses into a limp puddle on the deck, and silence combines with the tendrils of smoke that drift up from my pistol.
Jenks loops his thumbs behind his thick black belt and leans back onto his heels as he studies the sailors that trade silent glances with each other. “So— whaddaya say, boys?” Jenks reaches down to snatch the wig from the dead Captain’s body. “How does twice your usual pay sound?”
Unsure smiles creep through the gathered sailors, and one of the older men nods with emphasis. “Aye, that sounds good.” The others nod and offer their own affirmations.
Jenks slaps the grey wig onto my skull and then pats my cheek with a calloused palm. “And you,” he says, “How’d ya like yer own ship in my fleet?”
We’re not so bad, really. We create jobs.
— ♦♦♦ —
Dorthy Quinn ruled the library in which she worked. Aside from shelving the various books and tidying the tables where patrons sat reading, she constantly battled ogres, dragons, and other monsters that escaped from the books. What? “Those things aren’t real!”, you say. Well, Dorthy would beg to differ.