The Bloody Black Flag by Steve Goble is a debut novel aboard a pirate ship in 1722 and the first in the new Spider John Mysteries series.
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1722—aboard a pirate ship off the American Colonial Coast.
Spider John Rush never wanted to be a pirate, but it had happened and he'd learned to survive in the world of cut and thrust, fight or die. He and his friend Ezra knew that death could come at any moment, from grapeshot or storm winds or the end of a noose. But when Ezra is murdered in cold blood by a shipmate, Spider vows revenge.
On a ship where every man is a killer many times over, how can Spider find the man who killed his friend? There is no law here, so if justice is to be done, he must do it. He will have to solve the crime and exact revenge himself.
One wrong step will lead to certain death, but Spider is determined to look into the dying eyes of the man who killed his friend, even if it means his own death.
Spider John Rush resigned himself to the hard truth—he was returning to a world of cut and thrust, hide and pounce, blood and smoke, pitch and tar.
He had been foolish to think of leaving that world; Spider John belonged in no other. Ezra had said as much, but Spider seldom wished to concede that Ezra was right.
Spider tugged gently at the oar and watched the dark shoreline recede. The oar had a few rough spots, and a splinter poked the scabby knob on his left hand where his small finger used to be. That scab had bothered him already; it always did in cold weather, and this was October off the New England coast. Spider winced, tugged the tiny spear out with his teeth, then spat it into the chilly night air to vanish in the deep. He’d smooth out the oar later. For now, he focused on being quiet and doing the work.
Spider hoped the converted whaler they rowed toward would be in a better state than this damned leaky boat. It smelled of rot. He suspected the partially rotted bench he sat on might give way any moment. He wondered how the thing endured Ezra’s weight. Ezra, who stood well over six feet, shared the bench with Spider, rowing on the port side. Ezra sat with his ridiculously long legs tucked up near his chin.
The sea, dark as velvet and painted with a ribbon of moonlight, reminded Spider he was thirsty. Aft, Addison peered into the darkness, sipping now and then from a leather flask and glaring at any oarsman who made a splash that broke the silence. That would happen with eight men rowing, and some of them a bit drunk. Other than that, they were as silent as ghosts, just as Addison had commanded.
A whiskey scent wafted from Addison’s flask. Spider caught Addison’s eye and nodded toward the flask in hopes of coaxing a swig, but he got a sneer in return. “Just row, and be quiet about it,” Addison hissed in a whisper.
Spider was new to the crew, and had never seen the ship they rowed toward, but he did not doubt that Addison had reason for caution. The man likely had smuggled some things ashore, given that the English and French did battle over the Acadia border far north of Boston, and there probably was not a man aboard the boat who did not have crimes on his ledger, including himself and Ezra.
So they all were running from something, Spider supposed, even the chubby surgeon with rum on his breath who also was joining the Plymouth Dream crew, and whatever hazards they left ashore, they were headed toward new ones. That was the nature of the piratical life Spider and Ezra had led, and the life they were resuming. They were blood brothers against a hostile universe, and they were given very little choice in the matter.
As they rowed, in a rhythm they’d reached without the aid of a cadence or chantey, Spider threw many a nervous glance shoreward. He sought signs of a lantern or torch, and listened for shouts or musket fire. They were well away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony coast now, and the full moon showed nothing but its own shining trail on the expanse of ocean. In the distant north, lights from Boston looked like a small swarm of orange-and-yellow fireflies on the horizon; it would not be long now before those lights were extinguished and Boston settled down to sleep. Most of the city was in bed by now, he presumed, but brothels and taverns still plied their trades. He saw and heard nothing, however, near the secluded cove from which they’d launched, a good deal south of Boston proper. Spider spat overboard now and then as a charm to make his luck hold.
He had not been so lucky on other accounts. He had no jacket, for one thing, and wore two shirts against the October breeze. He hoped to buy a pea coat from storage or from a shipmate once aboard Plymouth Dream, and for once he had a bit of coin in the leather pouch fixed to his shabby belt.
He did not look forward to the deadly trade ahead, but part of him was relieved to be at sea again. On land, he could always feel the looming noose. The crowds, the doorways, the alleys all could hide crouching dangers—an agent of the law, an eyewitness to past misdeeds, or just a man with a knife and a need for bread. On the sea, Spider could see most hazards from a distance and could meet them with sword and gun in hand if he could not outrun them.
That was not true on shore, where Spider was out of his element. He wished Addison would pick up the pace.
Addison, though, was not concerned about speed. The man consulted a battered watch occasionally, tilting it to catch some moonlight to read by, but seemed satisfied with their progress. Nor did Addison peer rearward at the shore, ever. Spider began to wonder if the first mate’s demand for silence and the occasional touch of the flintlock pistol tucked into his belt were merely a show to demonstrate he was in command.
Addison was perhaps twice Spider’s age, somewhere in his forties, and spoke with a voice as deep and rich as molasses. He was balding, and heavy, but his hard blue eyes still gave the impression he could kick a younger man’s ass if it became necessary.
Spider’s personal concerns faded with each stroke of the oars. Once he was certain they hadn’t been followed, he began to relax. He stared greedily at Addison’s flask.
Ezra wagged a finger and shook his shaggy red head, flashing a broad grin. He knew what Spider was thinking, no doubt, and had a good joke—or lecture—in mind. But Ezra had the sense to keep his mouth shut, what with Addison showing no signs of tolerance. Ezra already had a fresh, shallow gash on his nose, a souvenir from the scrape that had prompted them to chase after Addison and accept his proposal to sail with Plymouth Dream. Ezra would just as soon avoid trouble now, if he could. Spider sighed. Finding passage to Nantucket and seeking a life ashore had been his foolish dream, and Ezra had gone along despite misgivings.
Fate, as always, had other ideas.
Spider nodded slowly at Ezra, and then they both focused on their work.
Spider had no idea how long they would have to row in silence. Addison had kept those details to himself, as was proper, given the cir¬cumstances. But at the end of the rowing would be a ship, hard work, and distance between himself and his pursuers. There would be bloody work, too. There always was. But he could handle that, as he had done most of the last eight years, and as distasteful as it was he preferred it to being burned or hanged. He had seen hangings, and watched the way the pious bastard officers of law and order always delayed the deed with preaching and speeches. He had seen the doomed men shake in dread until the very gallows shook with them, and he had heard the dreadful crack of the lever, the deathly squeal of the trapdoor hinge—and the horrid snap of the neck, the very sound of finality.
And burning? He could not even bring himself to think of it. The dread of it haunted him in nightmares.
He would take any quick death by knife or musket or pistol over that. Anything but that.
Those dark thoughts made him touch his neck, and his fingers found the leather strap and followed it to the pendant. It had been so long since he’d seen Em. And what of his son? Little Johnny had to be about eight years old by now, perhaps dreaming of the sea himself. Spider hoped not, for the boy’s sake. Such dreams had led Spider onto a whaler, and eventually onto a pirate sloop. His carpentry skills had saved him, or else he’d have been cast away with the rest of the whaling crew after the pirates had subdued their vessel. His dreams often showed him the visages of the poor souls who had been deemed useless, and thus had been cast overboard to swim until their muscles failed or sharks devoured them.
He brought the pendant up quickly, kissed it, then tucked it back beneath his shirts. He wondered if he would ever see her again. Ezra had warned him it would be foolish to try, and events had proven Ezra correct. But he would send money, if he could. No long letters, no admissions, no promises, no revelations—nothing that might hurt him one day in a court of law, nothing that might tie him to bloodshed and crimes of piracy—but such help as he could send. And the heart pendant. He’d carved it from ivory, for her. He planned to send her that, too, along with a lock of his hair and a note, if he could find someone to write it for him.
It was little—so little—but it was the best he could do, and so he would do it.
They rowed until the shore was beyond sight, and Spider had no sense of time left. There was nothing but the roll of the boat, the splash of oars, the salt-tinged air, and the stream of moonlight. Ezra and Spider were the new men, along with a surgeon who pretended to row while others did the actual labor. Spider and Ezra exchanged several glances while the surgeon barely dipped his oar into the sea.
Boredom set in, until Addison corked the flask and tucked it away, then reached into a sack at his feet.
“I have our goal in sight, gents,” Addison said. “Twenty degrees to starboard, if you can manage that. It ought to be a simple maneuver, aye, but . . .”
The oarsmen, despite the doctor’s miscues, managed the maneuver with little difficulty.
“Forward all,” Addison said.
They found their rhythm again and proceeded in that fashion for a few minutes, until Addison spoke again.
“Ship oars,” he said quietly. The command was followed, though one or two fellows were slow to heed and a couple of men groaned as if they’d been hauling bricks. The surgeon let out a huge sigh, as though he were Sisyphus watching his stone roll downhill.
Spider imagined old Lieutenant Bentley lashing a forehead or two with his knotted rope and opening bloody gashes. Even after leaving the navy for the whaling trade after losing an arm, Bentley had insisted on being addressed as lieutenant, and on wielding that damned rope. Spider did not miss Lieutenant Bentley one damned bit.
Addison grumbled, scratched his gray beard, then removed a cowbell from the sack at his feet. It made no sound even though Addison dangled it about somewhat carelessly, and Spider figured the clapper was gone from it. Addison pulled a dirk from his belt, grasped it by the blade, then tapped the cowbell with the wooden hilt—twice, thrice, then once. He hit it hard, and the notes rang out against the otherwise silent night. The first mate peered ahead the whole time, moonlight shining off his bald pate.
Spider turned to look over his shoulder and saw the vessel in the distance, standing dark with sails furled. She had three masts and good lines as far as he could judge in the darkness. With her long bowsprit cutting the night, she looked like some surfacing narwhal aiming for the sky. Plymouth Dream had been built for the whale trade and long voyaging, and would serve well if maintained with care. Spider hoped that was the case, but Addison had said she’d been without a decent carpenter for a good while. Addison had overheard Ezra and Spider talking in Boston and deduced Spider was a carpenter. That had led to the invitation to join Dream’s crew.
They had declined, at first. Circumstances eventually had forced their hands.
Ezra’s quiet laugh brought Spider back to the present.
“Well, we’re not rowing all the way to Jamaica, then,” Ezra joshed softly, flexing his fingers and flashing a grin toward the vessel.
Mention of Jamaica lifted Spider’s mood. Walking ashore was less dangerous there for a man on the account than striding through Boston, although not without its hazards, and there was a good prospect of finding a northbound merchant vessel that needed able hands. His hoped-for rendezvous with Em might happen, eventually. For the moment, Spider contented himself with the memory of the way her nose crinkled when she flashed her bright smile. He would simply have to wait, and endure. He was good at both.
“Not rowing to Jamaica in this thing, for certain,” Spider said, placing a hand gingerly on the bench. “Surprised this leaky bucket floats at all. I believe there are more worms than wood in this god-damned thing.”
“It got us here,” Addison said tersely. “Ye can see to making it better tomorrow, right, carpenter? Earn your keep?”
Spider nodded, though he doubted the boat would serve even as firewood. He would salvage what he could and give the rest to the cook’s fire kettle.
“Well, then,” Addison said. “If ye can all be quiet as ghosts for a bit, perhaps I can do m’own damn job. Else, you get to swim. Understand?”
Spider bowed his head in acknowledgement. Ezra covered his gap-toothed smile with one hand and raised the other in supplication, bowing his head until his ruddy beard brushed his grimy pea coat.
Addison repeated the series of notes on the cowbell, the tones spreading like waves in the darkness. Spider chuckled as Ezra winced at Addison’s lack of rhythm. Ezra couldn’t play a note on any instrument, but figured he could be a great musician if life had only given him a fiddle and time to practice.
Addison repeated his unmusical taps once again, and a reply came moments later, the same sequence on a bigger, deeper bell. Addison grinned and reached back into the sack, trading the bell for a wide-brimmed hat that had seen too much salt and sun. “Amazin’ what ye can hear when the hands is all proper silent and respectful. A’right, then,” he said, placing the hat over his bald head. “We can head in and not get shot. Back at the oars now, and ye’ll earn a drink or two.”
That sounded good to Spider. The aroma wafting from Addison’s flask enticed him like a beautiful woman.
“Didn’t they know we were coming?” Ezra tilted his head as he asked the question; it was too dark for Spider to make out his raised eyebrows and puckered lips, but he was well acquainted with his lanky friend’s confused expression.
“We could be us, or we could be someone not so welcome, far as Cap’n Barlow knows,” Addison said. “Pays to be cautious on an outlaw sea, boy. Don’t want to be mistaken for spies, or worse. Old George’s ships are all over the water, ever since they got Roberts. They got him, so they think they can get us all. Navy smells blood, like a shark smells blood. But Barlow is uncommon smart, and uncommon cautious. And so, for that matter, am I. You shall see.”
Spider winced. Bartholomew Roberts, the notorious pirate captain, had eluded his predators for four years, capturing prize upon prize almost under the Royal Navy’s very nose. And yet they’d caught up to him at last in February, capturing his Royal Fortune at Cape Lopez on the African coast. Roberts died quickly with grapeshot in his throat, a better fate than most of his men received. More than fifty had been throttled at the gallows.
Roberts’s death represented the end of a pirate era to some, but Addison and Barlow saw it as an opportunity.
Spider uttered a silent prayer, in hopes of never being hauled to a gallows himself.
He and Ezra traded glances as the crew went back to work. Ezra swallowed hard, then shrugged. Spider did likewise. Neither of them wanted to return to life on the account, but there were no other roads open to them, not here, not now. Grim humor and fatalism won the day.
“We won’t get shot tonight, maybe,” Spider whispered. “But what of tomorrow, eh? Or the day after?”
Ezra grinned. “I would stand behind you,” he whispered, “but you’re not so big as to make much of a shield.” Indeed, Spider was of less than medium height and was accustomed to staring up into other men’s faces.
“I don’t have to be big, just quick,” Spider said. “You tall fellows, you make for good targets.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh, yes,” Spider said, grinning. “You’re a dead man, certain.”
Copyright © 2017 Steve Goble.
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Steve Goble is a journalist who works for the USA Today Network in Ohio. He edits news copy and helps manage website and print production, along with social media presence, for ten USA Today Network sites in Ohio. In addition, he writes a weekly craft beer column called “Brewologist,” which appears on these websites. This is his first novel.