He turned quickly and trudged back down the other side of the hill before any of his companions could come after him and notice the attacking party themselves; and he tried to dampen his excitement, for the black man could sense moods nearly as well as Blackbeard could.
He found the three of them still sitting around the fire, the Indian and the black man on one side, David Herriot on the other.
"Well, David," he said, striving to sound enthusiastic, "the weather is definitely lightening. I imagine you've been looking forward to getting off this damned island and onto another ship, eh?"
Herriot, who had been Bonnett's docile sailing-master from the day the Revenge was launched until the day Colonel Rhett captured the ship in the Cape Fear River, just shrugged. His childish elation at their escape from Charles Town had begun to turn to superstitious fear when inexplicably bad weather forced them to take shelter here on Sullivan's Island, and ever since the Indian and the black man joined them he had sunk into a morose lethargy.
The Indian and the black man had simply been standing outside Bonnett's tent one morning a week ago, and though they had offered no introductions they had greeted Bonnett and Herriot by name, and explained that they had come to help them get another ship. Bonnett thought he had seen the Indian aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge in May, when Blackbeard had been terrorizing Charles Town to get the ghost-repelling medicinal weed, and the black man's gums were as white as his teeth, the mark of a bocor. It was as clear to the simple-minded Herriot as it was to Bonnett that Blackbeard had found them.
For almost a month and a half after that terrible inland voyage to the Fountain of Youth, Bonnett had had no control over his own actions. The Revenge accompanied the Queen Anne's Revenge north to Virginia, and though it was Bonnett's mouth that called shiphandling orders to his sailors, it was Blackbeard who spoke through it. Like a sleepwalker Bonnett found himself taking the King's Pardon from North Carolina's Governor Eden, and making arrangements to sail south, back home to Barbados, where he would, to whatever extent possible, resume his role as a member of the island's high society of plantation owners. Blackbeard was of course planning to be killed so that he could return in a new body, and he obviously felt that it would be useful to have a wealthy gentleman - or even ex-gentleman - working as his puppet on that rich island.
After he had taken the pardon Bonnett began to regain control of his actions; apparently Blackbeard felt that a return to his previous life was what Bonnett wanted most on earth, and so he didn't particularly bother to force the man's cooperation anymore.
Actually, though, Bonnett dreaded returning to Barbados more than he dreaded death. He had been a respected citizen during his years there - a retired Army major and a wealthy planter - and he could not bear to return as an ex-pirate, one who was still at liberty only because he had chosen to hide under the skirts of the royal amnesty. And any hope he might have had that the citizens of that remote island would be ignorant of his piratical career had been shattered only days after he embarked, for the second ship he took was the Turbet ... a Barbadian ship. Even at the time, he had known that he ought to kill everyone aboard so as to leave no one to testify, but he hadn't had the stomach to give the order ... and besides, David Herriot would never have stood by while people he had sailed with all his life were murdered.
And the idea of seeing his wife again, now, nearly made him faint. The woman had been a vituperative harridan even before he set out - however unwillingly! - on his felonious cruise, and he still frequently woke up sweating, with her scornful cries ringing all too well-remembered in his ears: "Get away from me, you brutal slug! You bitter pig!" Always he had fled the house, his own house, trembling with the desire to commit uxoricide or suicide ... or both.
But a return to Barbados and her was what the future held ... unless he could wreck the plans Blackbeard had for him. And so on the fourteenth of September he sent Herriot into town to round up as many members of his original crew as could be found - he wanted no one who had sailed with Blackbeard or Davies - and get them aboard the Revenge. The ship was not a prize of piracy - he had paid for every plank and every yard of rigging - and so the harbor authorities had no objection to his taking her out for a cruise. As soon as they were out of the harbor he had his men scrape the name Revenge off the ship's transom and paint Royal James on instead.
And then Bonnett set about violating his pardon as thoroughly and quickly as he could. Before the sun set on that Wednesday he had taken a ship, and during the next ten days he took eleven more. The plunder was minor - tobacco, pork, pins and needles - but he was demonstrably engaging in piracy. He told the crews of the robbed ships that his name was Captain Thomas, for he didn't want word of his backsliding to get back to Blackbeard until he could get himself safely out of Blackbeard's reach.
To accomplish that, he decided to steal Blackbeard's own planned defeat scenario - being entirely under Blackbeard's control, Bonnett had been the only person the pirate-king had dared to discuss his defeat plan with - albeit Bonnett would now employ it for a humbler end; for while Blackbeard planned to use it as a stepping-stone to immortality, Bonnett hoped only for a quick death, or, failing that, a trial and eventual hanging far from Barbados.
He sailed the Royal James up the Cape Fear River, ostensibly to careen her for repairs - but he made sure that the captain and crew of the last ship he'd taken saw where his anchorage was before he turned them loose.
The governor's pirate-hunters under Colonel Rhett had obligingly arrived at the river mouth on the evening of the twenty-sixth; and Bonnett made sure that his feigned escape attempt took place at low tide the next morning. Though Herriot had stared in astonishment at the impracticality of his last few orders, Bonnett succeeded in running the ship aground in a position from which any effective fight would be impossible. At the last moment Bonnett had tried to detonate his own powder kegs, which would have scattered the remains of himself and most of his crew across the marshy landscape, but he was stopped before he could ignite it.
Then there had been the voyage back to Charles Town - in shackles. His crew was promptly locked up in the Anabaptist meeting house in the southern corner of town, under the guard of a full company of militia ... but Bonnett and Herriot were just kept in the watchhouse south of town, on the banks of the Ashley River, with only two guards assigned to them.
One evening two weeks after their arrival there, both of their guards walked back to town for dinner at the same time ... and the door's lock proved to be so rusty that a hard shove snapped the bolt. Even Bonnett had never really wanted to face the humiliation of a trial and public execution, and so, elated at what seemed to be a stroke of luck, he and Herriot had slipped out and stolen a boat and then rowed east past Johnson's Fort and right on out of the harbor.
The weather had turned foul then, with wind and rain and choppy seas, and they had had to land on Sullivan's Island, just outside and north of the harbor; and, too late, both of them began to wonder uneasily whether their escape really had been just luck.
The weather had not improved. The two fugitives managed to make a tent with their boat's sail, and for two weeks they lived on flounder and turtle cooked over a carefully concealed fire. Bonnett hoped the modest, wind-scattered smoke of it would pass unnoticed against the perpetually gray skies. Clearly it had not.
Bonnett now tore a fan-shaped frond from one of the ubiquitous palmettos, and threw it onto the fire; it began popping and curling, and he hoped the sounds would cover any noises made by Colonel Rhett and his men as they crept up the seaward side of the hill. "Yes," he went on loudly, "it'll do us both good, David, to get off this island. I'm ready to go out and take more ships - and I've learned from my mistakes! Never again will I leave anyone alive to testify against me!" He hoped Rhett's party was hearing these sentiments. "Rape the women and shoot the men and pitch 'em all over the side for the sharks!"
Herriot was looking even more unhappy, and the bocor was staring at Bonnett with lively suspicion.
"What are you doing?" the bocor asked. Extra alert because of their distance from the protective Caribbean loas, he raised his hand and sifted the breeze through his fingers.
Where are you, Rhett? thought Bonnett desperately, his cheerful expression beginning to falter. Are you in position yet? Guns loaded, primed and aimed?
The Indian stood up and swept the clearing with his gaze. "Yes," he said to the black man, "there are concealed purposes here."
The bocor's fingers were still waving, but the hand was pointing to the seaward slope. "There are ... others! Nearby!" He turned quickly to the Indian. "Protective magic! Now!"
The Indian's hand darted to the decorated leather bag at his belt -
"Fire!" yelled Bonnett.
A dozen nearly simultaneous explosions shook the air as sand was kicked up all over the clearing and the fire threw up a swirl of sparks. Voices were shouting at the top of the slope, but Bonnett couldn't hear what they were saying. Slowly he turned his head and looked around.
The Indian was sitting in the raked-up sand clutching his ripped and bloody thigh, and the bocor was gripping his own right wrist and scowling at his torn and nearly fingerless right hand.
David Herriot lay flat on his back, staring intently into the sky; a big hole had been punched into the middle of his face, and blood had already made a dark halo in the sand around his head.
Good-bye, David, thought Bonnett. I'm glad I was able to give you at least this.
Colonel Rhett and his men were sliding and running down this side of the slope, being careful to keep fresh pistols pointed at the men around the fire. It occurred to Bonnett that he himself had not been hit by any of the pistol balls that had been fired into the clearing.
That meant he would live ... to stand public trial, and then to provide morbid amusement for all the Charles Town citizens - as well as any Indians, and sailors, and trappers that might be in town - with the spectacle of himself twitching and grimacing and publicly losing control of his bladder and bowels while he dangled by the neck for some long minutes at the end of a rope.
He shivered, and wondered if it was too late to provoke Rhett's men into killing him here and now.
It was. Rhett himself had come up behind him and now yanked his arms back and quickly lashed his wrists together with stout twine. "Good day, Major Bonnett," said Rhett coldly.
The fit of shivering had passed, and Bonnett found he was able to relax. He looked up, and he squared his shoulders as befitted a one-time Army Major. Well, I'll die with no credit, he thought, but at least with no outstanding debt either. I've earned the death they'll prepare for me. Not with piracy, for that was never my doing; but now I needn't work to deceive myself any longer about another matter.
"Good day, Colonel Rhett," he said.
"Bind the black and the Indian," Rhett told one of his men, "and then trot them to the boat. Prod them with a knife-point if they won't step along prompt." Then he gave Bonnett a shove. "The same goes for you."
Bonnett strode up the slope toward the gray sky. He was nearly smiling. No, he thought, I needn't pretend to myself any longer that I was drugged when I beat to death that poor whore who did such a convincing imitation of my wife. Now that I'm being called on, for whatever mistaken reasons, to atone for a horrible crime, I can at least be glad they found a man with one to offer.
He thought of Blackbeard. "Don't let me escape again, do you understand?" he called to Rhett. "Lock me up in some place I can't be got out of, and keep alert guards over me!"
"Don't worry," said Rhett.
When the faint pink of dawn behind the shoulder of Ocracoke Island became bright enough to resolve the dim blur of the inlet mouth, Blackbeard chuckled softly to see the sails of the two Navy sloops still anchored where they had been at dusk. The giant pirate upended the last bottle of rum, and when it was empty he waved it at Richards. "Here's another one for Miller," he said. "I'll bring it to him." He inhaled deeply, savoring the blend of chilly dawn air and rum fumes, and it seemed to him that the very air was tense - breathing it was like touching a beam of wood flexed to within half a hair of its snapping point.
Though he didn't relish them, he forced himself to chew up and swallow one more mouthful of sugar-and-cocoa balls, and he gagged but got them down. That's got to be enough, he told himself; probably no one in the world ever drank as much rum or ate as much damned candy as I've done this night. I'm sure there's not a drop of my blood that isn't saturated with sugar and alcohol.
"We could still slip east, cap'n," said Richards nervously. "The tide's still high enough for us to clear the shoals in this sloop."
Blackbeard stretched. "And abandon our prize?" he asked, jerking a thumb at the somewhat larger sloop, anchored thirty yards away to starboard, that they had taken yesterday. "Naw. We can deal with these Navy boys."
Richards still frowned worriedly, but didn't venture another objection. Blackbeard grinned as he started aft toward the boat's gun-deck ladder. It looks, he thought, as if shooting Israel Hands served two purposes. I've also made the rest of them afraid to argue with me.
His grin became more of a wince - on a tamer face it might have looked like wry sadness - when he remembered that gathering in his tiny cabin two nights ago. Word had just come from Tobias Knight, the collector of Customs, that Virginia's governor Spotswood knew Blackbeard was lingering here and had organized some sort of force to capture him. Israel Hands had instantly begun making plans to abandon this Ocracoke Inlet anchorage.
Blackbeard had leaned forward, keeping his face expressionless in the lamplight, and refilled the several cups on the rough table. "Do you decide what we do, Israel?" he had asked.
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