But before he could decide who to shoot at he was flung to his knees as the whole ship lurched violently forward and a basso profundo thunderclap shook the air all the way up to the mast-tops and the entire stern of the ship swelled incredibly upward and outward, dissolving into a towering cloud of dust and smoke and spinning timbers. The boiling sea was shadowed for dozens of yards to port and starboard by the sudden, churning cloud, and pockmarked by the splashes of things falling into it, and the prolonged thunder rolled away across the waves.
Then masts started coming down, first with a snapping of lines, which, though loud as pistol shots, could scarcely be heard over the continuing roar of the explosion, then with a ponderous rushing through the smoky air, finally culminating in the twangy yielding of the safety nets and the bone-jarring crash as the timbers hit the deck.
The deck Shandy crouched on wasn't level anymore - it was tilted down toward the stern, and even as he noticed it, the tilt became more pronounced. He scrabbled around, dropping both pistols, and on his hands and knees crawled up the slanting forecastle deck to the port rail and grabbed one of the stanchions.
He looked aft, which was down. The stern half of the ship was probably under water, but the torn and crumpled sails, and beyond them the thick smoke, made it impossible to be sure. Captain Wilson's corpse had apparently rolled away while he wasn't looking, but he saw one of the unfired dueling pistols cartwheel into oblivion. All around him he could hear air hissing up out of the hull, and bits of wood and metal still clattering down out of the black sky.
Someone was shaking his arm, and when he looked up he saw that it was Davies, his Navy jacket hacked to tatters, straddling the rail and shouting at him. Shandy couldn't make out the words, but it was clear that Davies wanted him to follow him, so Shandy scrambled up onto the rail.
In the choppy water below rocked the Jenny, freed of all but one of the lines mooring her to the stricken man-of-war, and even as he noticed it he saw one of the pirates chop the last line through with a saber and then jump from the ship's up-tilted bow to the water thirty feet below.
"Go!" yelled Davies, giving Shandy a hard slap between the shoulders and then leaping from the rail after him.
The first few minutes aboard the Jenny were a scrambling nightmare - a dozen men, half of them wounded, struggled to hoist sails, half of them torn by shot, in a desperate effort to get headway and tack clear before the man-of-war sank, creating a turbulence powerful enough to founder bigger vessels than the Jenny.
At last, when the Navy ship had sunk to her middle, and her vast, dripping bow was raised entirely out of the water, and her two boats, crowded with sailors, had rowed thirty yards to the south, the Jenny's mainsail stopped luffing and flumped out taut. A few moments later the sloop began moving through the water and Davies ordered the tiller eased. They were a hundred yards southeast and picking up speed when the man-of-war's bow, spurting smoke as the explosion-fouled air in her was forced out, disappeared and was replaced by a white commotion of boiling and splashing.
"Hold her steady as she is ... while we inventory," called Davies wearily, leaning by the stern. He was pale under his tan, and didn't seem to have the strength to push away from the rail.
Skank secured the jib sheet around a belaying pin and then leaned on the gunwale to catch his breath. "How ... in hell ... did we get out of that?"
Davies laughed weakly and waved at Shandy, who was crouched on the stern rail and shivering, more from shock than because of his wet clothes. "Our boy Shandy got the captain's confidence with his song-and-dance about being a forced man - and then, first chance he got, Shandy shot him."
In the stunned silence that followed this pronouncement, Shandy turned away, looking back at the tangled litter visible on the distant blue-green wave faces whenever the swell raised the Jenny's stern.
Skank, his weariness forgotten, scrambled over the corpses and fouled rigging to the stern. "Really?" he asked, his voice hoarse with awe. "All that I'm-not-one-of-these talk you gave him was just play-acting?"
Shandy sighed, and when he shrugged he could feel that the tension had cramped its way back into his muscles. This is my life now, he thought. The men in those lifeboats know who I am. I couldn't be more committed. He turned around and grinned at Skank. "That's right," he said. "And I had to make it convincing enough to fool you lads too, so you'd react naturally."
Skank was frowning in bewilderment. "But you couldn't have been pretending ... I was right next to you ... "
"I told you I was involved with the theater for years, didn't I?" asked Shandy with affected lightness. "Anyway, you saw that Davies was bound when he was brought aboard, didn't you? Who do you think cut him loose, the captain? And who threw the swords to you?"
"Damn," Skank muttered, shaking his head. "You're good."
Davies was squinting at Shandy, and he laughed softly. "Yes," he said, "You're a good actor, Jack." Davies blinked and swayed, paler than before, then shook his head sharply. "Did Hodge's old bocor survive?"
After a moment's search, the bocor's eviscerated body was found draped from the deck edge down into the hold. "No, Phil," came a hoarse call from a narrowed throat.
"Well, find where he hid his restorative snackies and bring 'em to me up by the bow." He turned to Shandy and said, more quietly, "Dried liver and black sausage and raisins, mostly. Bocors always gorge on such trash after doing heavy magic, and I did one hell of a piece of it today. Them fire-sprites were ready and hungry."
"So I saw. Why liver and sausage and raisins?"
"Don't know. They claim it keeps their gums red, but all old bocors have white gums anyway." Davies took a deep breath, then slapped him on the back. "There's rum forward - I need some to wake up Mate Care-For so he'll get busy on my shoulder wound, and I'll bet you won't turn down a gulp or two."
"No," Shandy said fervently.
"Did Hodge come through?" Davies asked a man near him.
"No, Phil. He caught a ball in the belly as we were going over the rail, and he jumped but he never bobbed up again."
"All right, I'll take it. Bear to southwest," Davies called to the disheartened crew. "All of you that are too hurt to work, mend sails and splice line. We're going to have to sail thefty, night and day, to get to the Florida rendezvous in time."
"Aw hell, Phil," complained one lean old fellow, "we're too shot up. Nobody could blame us if we just went back to N'Providence."
Davies gave him a wolfish grin. "When did any of us worry about what we'd be blamed for? The Carmichael is my ship, and I want her back; and I think Ed Thatch is soon to be King of the West Indies, and I want to be sitting high when the smoke clears. It's too bad some of you are old enough to remember the peaceful buccaneer days, because those days are long gone - the summer's over and empire season is here, and in a few more years it probably won't be possible anywhere in the Caribbean to just sit in the sun and cook scavenged Spanish livestock over the buccan fires. It's a new world, right enough, a world for the taking, and we're the ones who know how to live in it without having to pretend it's a district of England or France or Spain. All that could hold us back is laziness."
"Well, Phil," the man said, a bit baffled by this speech, "laziness is what I do best."
Davies dismissed him with a wave. "Then obey orders - stick with me and you'll eat and drink your fill, or be dead and not care." He pulled Shandy along toward the nodding bow, and when they got there he fumbled under a pile of canvas, and, with a glad cry, produced a bottle. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and handed the bottle to Shandy.
Shandy took several deep gulps of the sun-warmed liquor; it seemed to consist of vapor as much as liquid, and when he inhaled after handing the bottle back, it was like taking another sip.
"Now tell me," said Davies after swigging quite a bit of it himself, "why did you shoot Wilson?"
Shandy spread his hands. "He was going to kill you. Like that midshipman said, it would have been murder."
Davies peered intently at him. "Really? That was the entire reason?"
Shandy nodded. "Yes, God help me."
"And when you got your new clothes, and said you were a forced man and no real pirate ... was that sincere?"
Shandy sighed hopelessly. "Yes."
Davies shook his head in wonder and took another sip of the warm rum.
"Uh," said Shandy, "who's ... was it Peachy Bander?"
"Could I have a bit more of that? Thanks." Shandy took several gulps and handed the bottle back. "Percher Bandy?" he said, a bit dizzily. "You know, the one who told you something about Captain Wilson, and was it true?"
"Oh!" Davies laughed. "Panda Beecher! He was - still is, maybe - a spice wholesaler, and he always got Navy captains to carry his goods in the holds of Navy ships; it's illegal as hell, but a lot of merchants do it - they can pay the captain enough to make it worth his while, but still come out lots better than if they had commercial captains do it, what with either their extra insurance charges or the twelve-and-a-half percent of the cargo charge for an official Navy escort to keep pirates away. I was in the Navy myself for twenty-four years, and I know of many a Navy captain who's made extra cash by dealing with Panda and his sort, even though being caught at it would mean a nasty court-martial for the captain. I learned the captain's name from one of the men in the boat, so I pretended to remember him. It seemed not too long a shot to hope that Wilson had had such dealings, and would believe I knew of 'em. Then too, back in the nineties, Panda ran a couple of whorehouses that particularly catered to Royal Navy officers, and I've heard that the ... stresses of Caribbean service led some of the young officers to prefer oddities - boys, you know, and whips, and Oriental variations - and there was the possibility that Wilson might have been one such."
Shandy nodded owlishly. "And you phrased your question so that it could seem to refer to either business."
"Exactly. And one barb or the other did, sure enough, seem to strike home, didn't it? We'll never know now which one it was."
Skank shuffled up, handed Davies a foul-smelling canvas bag and then hurried away aft, wiping his hands on the rail. Davies pulled out an end of black sausage and took an unenthusiastic bite. "You see," he went on, chewing, "after the damned Utrecht Treaty left the privateers jobless, and ruined sailoring as a legal livelihood, and I turned pirate, I promised myself I'd never hang. I've seen too many hangings, over the years. So," he reached for the bottle and gulped quite a bit more, "I was thankful to have thought of that Panda Beecher question ... in the same way that a man marooned on a barren reef is thankful to be left with a pistol."
Shandy frowned at the intricacy of this; then his eyebrows went up in comprehension. "It was suicide!" he exclaimed, too drunk to be tactful. "You wanted him to kill you when you said that."
"Preferred it, let's say. To a trial and eventual noose. Yes." He shook his head again, clearly still astounded by Shandy's action. "Just because it would have been murder?"
Shandy waved back at the other men in the boat. "Any of them would have done the same."
"With assured safety on the other hand?" Davies laughed. "Not ever. Not one. You remember Lot?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lot - the fellow with the wife who was made out of salt."
"Oh, that Lot." Shandy nodded. "Sure."
" 'Member when Yahweh came over to his house?"
Shandy scowled in concentration. "No."
"Well, Yahweh told him he was going to stomp the town, because everybody was such bastards. So Lot says hold on, if I can find ten decent lads will you let the town alone? Yahweh huffs and puffs a bit, but finally allows as how yeah, if there's ten good men he won't kick the place to bits. Then Lot, being crafty, see, says, well, how about if there was three? Yahweh gets up and walks around, thinking about it, and then says, all right, I'll go three. So Lot says, how about one. Yahweh's all confused by this point, having had his heart set on wrecking the town, but at last he says all right, one decent man, even. And then of course Lot couldn't find even one, and Yahweh got to torch the town anyway." Davies waved at the other men in the boat, a gesture that managed to take in the Carmichael, too, and New Providence Island, and perhaps the whole Caribbean. "Don't, Jack, ever make the mistake of thinking he'd find one among these."
Cut off from the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the land we find,
Where the brightest have gone before us,
And the dullest are most behind -
Stand, stand to your glasses, steady!
'T is all we have left to prize:
One cup to the dead already -
Hurrah for the next that dies!
- Bartholomew Dowling
The evening breeze was strong and from the sea; the three ships moored offshore were nudged parallel, and the fires on the beach threw sparks away from the setting sun toward the black Florida cypress swamps. In the raised hut the pirates had built on a sandy rise just inland of the fires, Beth Hurwood peered out at the sky and the sea, and filled her lungs with the cool sea air, and prayed that the breeze would hold until dawn. She didn't want to spend a third night locked into the stifling "mosquito shelter" her father had forced the pirates to build - a canvas-walled box just big enough to lie down in.