“Bugger!” The stinking man dropped the musket ball to the sludgy bottom of the long hollowed-out canoe. His tar-stained fingers fumbled for another, found one, and jammed it down the fouled musket barrel.
The powder came next, the horn opened with blackened teeth, a little poured accidentally after the ball and charge, with more onto his greasy leather breeches, and an overly generous sprinkling to the frizzen pan.
Great booming cracks of gunpowder assaulted his eardrums along with whistling lead and plumes of white smoke disturbing him from his task – even more powder was spilt upon his lap. He coughed slightly as the acrid stench invaded his nostrils.
Fore and aft, his companions fired upon the French sloop. Incredibly, some of them even managed to hit. It would be a close thing, but he was ready now, and raised the musket over one of his fellow’s shoulders.
Unfortunately, the returning French volley struck the man in front a blow to the chest. The force of impact sent him reeling into the stinking man; his musket was driven back, the barrel lowered, causing the ball to roll and drop into the hollow. “Bugger!” He said again. To add to his frustration another shot crashed into the tropical wood beside him, sending a shower of splinters to his face.
He blinked furiously, trying to rid himself of debris, blindly shoving his dead companion away. He couldn’t remember the man’s name... he’d spoken to him several times over the past week, but God – what was his name?
He raised a bare foot from the sodden canoe floor, kicking hard at the nameless man. The corpse flopped over the raised gunwale, splashing into the warm Caribbean waters below.
“Is Dory dead?” Someone said from behind.
Dory... that was his name. Dory.
“Aye,” the stinking black-haired man replied, fumbling once more for a musket ball.
“Well if he ain’t, he soon will be – poor bugger can’t swim.”
“Can you?” The first man asked, finally using the rusted ramrod to force the ball deeper.
“You know I bloody well can’t. Swimming’s unnatural it is.”
“Right,” he raised the musket, taking careful aim towards the upcoming sloop, “I’ll remember how unnatural it is when next I fish ye from the waters matey.”
“Well it ain’t unnatural for you Morgan,” the second man said in protest, “you’re foreign. Foreigners do all sorts of weird things.”
The man known as Morgan looked down the length of the dugout canoe. It was just under forty feet long, painstakingly carved from the single trunk of a red balsam. It would have been even more painstaking if every man aboard was not a boucanier, those land-bound sailors of the West Indies, by definition: long musket hunters, barbecuers of wild hogs, and fellers of giant red woods. Shying away from society, most were hardened criminals, mutineers, runaways, or pirates hiding from society’s wrath, hacking a life in the cruel disease infested Caribbean wilderness. They hid away, hoping to be forgotten... until opportunities too good to pass up presented themselves. Opportunities like this one.
“Shoot the fucking halyards!” A man up front roared.
“As if we didn’t know...” the one aft of Morgan said over the deafening musketry.
“Mister Bloed – you’ll indulge me with firing your fucking piece!”
“Aye captain,” Morgan replied, his eyes steady down the steel barrel. It was a good musket, one often admired jealously by the other buccaneers. Hand crafted and customised by a famous Amsterdam gunsmith; a gift from a cold father. The new lock, fixtures and beautifully carved oaken butt had been additions when he operated out of Cornwall. The musket was very much like himself in that respect: half Dutch, half Cornish... accurate and deadly.
The motion of the canoe on the turquoise waters from those with Caribbee paddles instead of firearms wavered his aim. He was briefly distracted by one of their younger members dropping his paddle, disturbing the canoe’s rhythm.
“Young Ormes!” The captain called, “Pick up your fucking oar!”
“Taking your sweet time matey...” Morgan’s companion, one of those with paddle, said from behind.
“This ain’t ye English buggering army Stukes. It’s quality we be after, not half-arsed volleys.”
“Is that right? Well I suppose the worm could eat through their hull first eh? That’d save you the bother.”
Morgan finally squeezed the trigger with his tarred fingers.
The speckles of rust didn’t hinder the efficiency of the mechanism. Flint struck steel – the overfilled pan ignited. The larger grains of inferior powder jumped onto Morgan’s bronzed cheek, burning at greasy stubble and flesh alike.
The ball had only been lightly wadded; the musket already fouled from a morning of such firing. Morgan had expected to be a little off. He saw the hole appear in French canvas just above their mainsail halyard. But an inch or so lower, the halyard would have parted from the sail immediately robbing their prey of speed and the ability to escape.
“Nice try matey!” Stukes said.
“Row you goddamned lubbers! Row!” Their canoe captain bellowed. Dull flashes masked by the tropical sun and the imposing boom of muskets – the French had returned fire.
Another man near Morgan fell, his jaw shattered by a ball, his teeth burst through his cheek in a grizzly pink trail. Morgan wiped the man’s flesh from his face and bent to reload his musket again.
Then came the cries of alarm from the French sloop.
“We have ‘em now lads! Row now, row for your prize!”
Morgan looked up to see their sail canvas split and tear free from the halyard. The buccaneers cheered; some dropped their muskets to take up paddles instead. They raced towards their French prey, cutting through the warm waters, excitement fuelling their aching muscles. The French rallied ahead of them, with a still standing officer screaming orders, but they were too late – the bow of their dugout was just alongside, the buccaneers were armed, ready to fight. They outnumbered the French, both in manpower and their levels of savagery.
“Kill them all!” The canoe captain cried.
Less than ten bloody minutes later and the buccaneers had their first sloop. Now they could sail further afield, wreaking havoc beyond Hispaniola.
Several years later Morgan Bloed did not feel quite so clever. The bullet had punctured his stomach. Its contents burnt the raw flesh and other soft organs nearby. Several of the muscles had torn, knotting beneath his ribs. Each breath struggled was racked with excruciating pain.
“God damn it. The pox on ‘em all!” He said through dirty gritted teeth. He pressed his hands against the wound, gasping for another rattling breath.
“Easy matey... don’t speak...” Stukey said.
“Piss on that,” he coughed, blood mingled with bile, “I’m dying so there ain’t much time matey, an’ you know it.”
The one called Stukey – a companion through all his Caribbean adventures – looked at him with despair. Together they had seen many die, but today they each lost more than a friend…
“Ye have to do something for me Thomas.”
“Anything matey...” Stukey said, the tears barely held back.
“Ye have to find Jan... me brother Jan. Tell him what happened, who was responsible... tell ‘im of their treachery.”
“I will matey – and I’ll take back your musket from the thieving dogs.”
“I don’t give a rat’s shit about the musket mate... but ye must tell Jan to look after me son. Look after him not like we did – he can’t live like this... none of us should bloody live like this. There’s gold enough... you know where it is. Let him be a lawyer, a merchant, a carpenter – anything but a fucking pirate!”
Stukey nodded his head, “I understand.”
“Then bloody well swear it Thomas Stukes, for I shall not rest in this world nor the next if’n ye don’t.”
“I swear it Morgan, I’ll find Jan, and I’ll see it done.”
“Thank ye matey... now take what little coin I have on me, and go. Let my last few minutes be fucking peaceful eh?” He grinned from his bloody black teeth.
Stukey forced one in return, “I’m pleased I met you Morgan.”
“Oh bugger off will ye? Not enough that I have to die, than to listen to ye poetic nonsense.”
Stukey grinned again, genuinely this time, and followed their footsteps back along the beach. The crunching of his sea boots on the white sands grew distant.
Morgan coughed up more blood, spattering the sands, the red creating a stark contrast against the coral white. He regretted many things in his life... leaving his wife, abandoning his children, falling out with his father. But by God he’d had fun along the way.
Morgan Bloed smiled, staring out to sea. He could see other islands from the archipelago dotted about him, and in the far distance he thought he could make out Saint Kitts, hazy against the clear waters. He tried to picture the pirate havens nearby, the taverns, the abundance of colourful whores...
Yes, he said... amoral, but fun.
Stukey managed to make a new canoe, shorter than the type they had used to ambush their enemies so long ago, but still serviceable. He paddled between several of the smaller islands, seeking settlements or plantations, finding little in the first few weeks. He was eventually picked up by a Mesquito Indian craft, en route to Port Royal in Jamaica to make an appeal on their lands. They happily took Stukey along in exchange for coin and another man to help paddle.
The first thing he did back in civilisation was to find an alehouse, to drown his sorrows and the torturous memories of his best friend’s death. He was so drunk that he couldn’t fight off the urchin beggars that mugged him outside, knocking him backwards, smashing his skull off an empty tun barrel.
Thomas Stukes had every intention of keeping his promise, to tell the story of his friend’s murder to Jan Bloed, and to see Morgan’s son grow up in a life outside of piracy. But intentions were not enough for Stukey, for he too now was dead.
* * *
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