Boarding proved easy, for the tide was pulling the Navy sloop toward them, and Blackbeard was able to leap across the gap onto the shot-raked deck; at the same instant the hatch cover was flung back and the officer in charge of the Navy sloop, a lieutenant by his uniform, scrambled up to the deck. Blackbeard bared his teeth in a grin so full of recognition and welcome that the lieutenant actually glanced behind himself to see what old friend the pirate-king had spied.


But behind him was nothing but a crowd of his own men scrambling up the ladder, the eighteen - of the original thirty-five - who could still wield a sword or fire a pistol. The pirates were leaping and clambering aboard right behind their chief, and the lieutenant and his men scarcely had time to draw their rapiers before the yelling pirates were upon them.


For the first few moments the deck was a chaotic riot of howling, clanging, stamping, chopping savagery, punctuated by the occasional bang of a pistol shot, as the pirates used their heavy cutlasses to hatchet through the line of Navy men and then turn back upon them again, and many of the Navy men's rapiers were broken in attempting to parry the sledgehammer blows of weapons that caused nearly as much damage striking flat as they did striking edge on. The deck was soon slippery with the blood that spouted from wrist-stumps, undone bellies and opened throats, and the air that shook with yelling and clanking was foul with the hot iron smell of fresh blood.


But the Navy men had all along been trying simply to evade the ponderous swings of the cutlasses rather than oppose their own fragile blades to them, and, after the first brutal couple of minutes, the panting, sweating pirates worked their ten-pound chunks of steel with less quickness and force, and the light rapier blades were able to dart in around the slow strokes, and puncture throats and eyes and chests. Though damaged less spectacularly, as many pirates were falling now as Navy men.


Blackbeard had wound up fighting by the mast, back to back with one of his men, but when a rapier point spun around the other pirate's descending cutlass and sprang in to transfix his heart, and he tumbled instantly limp to the deck, Blackbeard stepped away from the mast and with his left hand drew his last pistol.


The Navy lieutenant, standing in front of him, drew one of his own.


The two shots were nearly simultaneous, but while Black-beard's ball missed and went skipping away across the shoals, the lieutenant's ball punched straight into the giant pirate's abdomen.


It rocked him back, but a moment later Blackbeard roared and leaped forward, whirling his cutlass in a chop that broke off the lieutenant's rapier blade an inch from the hilt; Blackbeard raised the cutlass again to split the man's head - but another Navy man stepped up behind the pirate and, with a full over-the-head swing like someone driving a stake, brought the heavy axelike blade of a pike down onto Blackbeard's left shoulder, barely missing his ear. The collarbone snapped audibly and the pirate was slammed down onto one knee. He raised his head and then, incredibly, straightened his massive legs and stood up, swaying back just as the pike came whistling down again, so that it tore open his forehead and cheek instead of crushing his skull.


Blackbeard had dropped the fired pistol, but his good right hand still gripped the cutlass, and he swung it around in a horizontal arc that sent the pike-wielder's head and body tumbling, separately, across the deck.


Another pistol was fired directly into Blackbeard's chest, and as he staggered back, blood spattering onto the deck all around him, two rapiers were driven deep into his back; he whirled so quickly that one of them broke off in him, and his outflung cutlass broke the arm of the man who held the broken sword. Two more shots hammered into him and another blade chugged deeply into his side.


Finally he got his feet solidly under him and straightened to his full height - the Navy men drew back fearfully - and then, straight as a felled tree, he toppled forward, and the wet deck shook when he hit it.


"Jesus Christ," exhaled the lieutenant, sitting down abruptly, his exhaustion-tense hands still locked around the fired pistol and the broken sword.


After a pause, one of the Navy men picked up Blackbeard's cutlass, knelt by the corpse and raised the heavy blade over his head, obviously trying to guess where, under the tumble of tangled black hair, the pirate-king's neck was. A moment later he made up his mind and swung the blade down; it crunched through Blackbeard's spine and into the deck and Blackbeard's severed head rolled over to stare at the sky with a strained but sardonic grin.


When the tide rose again in the early evening, the four battered sloops filed past Beacon Island and out through the Ocracoke Inlet. The surviving pirates were under armed guard aboard the Adventure, and Blackbeard's head swung from the Navy sloop's bowsprit. Blood had stopped dripping from the grisly trophy hours ago, and most of it had long since threaded away in the cold salt water to feed tiny fishes, but one clot had remained solid, and clung now to the hull of the sloop just below the water line.


It was, very gently, pulsing.


Chapter Twenty-One


The bang of the pistol shot rolled away across the long harbor of New Providence Island, and though a glint showed on the deck of the Delicia as one of the Navy officers aboard her turned a glass on the shore, no one leaped up in fear of being murdered, or anticipation of seeing someone else be, as would have been the case six months ago, and Jack Shandy plodded barefoot across the hot sand to the chicken he'd beheaded with the pistol ball. It was evidently too early in the day for drink to have impaired his aim.


He picked up the head. As he'd feared, the beak had letters inked on it, and he let it drop.


Damn, he thought. So much for grilled chicken. I'm glad old Sawney hasn't started magicking the fever into lobsters yet.


He tucked the pistol into his sash and walked toward the fort. The darker-colored masonry of the new sections of wall gave the whole edifice a pied look, and Shandy thought it was probably the physical improvements, even more than the British flag and the presence of Woodes Rogers, the official governor, that had made mad old Governor Sawney move out of the place.


As he trudged toward the cluster of tents he glanced to his left at the harbor. There were fewer boats these days than there'd been before Rogers' arrival, and it was easy to spot the old Jenny. Shandy had abandoned his captaincy when he took the pardon three months ago, and Venner had stepped in and declared himself captain. By that time, though, everybody had taken the pardon, and it was clear to most that the days of piracy were dead, and nobody felt that the issue of who might be captain of one battered old sloop was important enough to dispute, and so Venner's claim had stood. He had careened the vessel, cleaned her up and rerigged her, and it was obvious that he intended to violate his pardon and go back on the account. Shandy had heard that he was furtively recruiting a crew from among the segment of the island's population that missed the bad old days - he hadn't asked Shandy, and Shandy wasn't interested anyway.


The Navy brigantine he'd seen wending its way in among the shoals this morning was moored now, but though supplies were being unloaded and taken ashore, there was none of the festive atmosphere he would have expected - men were standing around in little groups on the beach, talking quietly and shaking their heads, and one of the prostitutes was sobbing theatrically.


"Jack!" someone called. Shandy turned and saw Skank hurrying toward him.


"Mornin", Skank," he said when the young man stopped, panting, in front of him.


"Did you hear the news?"


"Probably not," said Shandy. "If I did, I forgot it."


"Blackbeard's dead!"


Shandy smiled reminiscently, as one might at learning that a game remembered from long-ago childhood is still being played by children today. "Ah." He kept walking, and Skank trotted along beside him. "Pretty sure, this news is?" Shandy asked, pausing at the tent that served as a sort of open-air pub.


"Oh, aye, couldn't be surer. It was in North Carolina, a month ago. Half his men were captured, and old Thatch's head was brought right to the governor."


"He died on the water, I daresay," remarked Shandy, accepting the cup of rum he didn't even have to bother specifying anymore.


Skank nodded. "Aye. He was in the Ocracoke Inlet, in a sloop called the Adventure. He'd hid the Queen Anne's Revenge somewhere, and all his lucre too, they say. They claim he didn't have a single reale aboard. That weren't like him, though - probably the Navy men took all the money."


"No - I'll bet - " Shandy paused to take a long sip of the rum. 'I'll bet he had hid it all. Adventure, eh? An apt name - it was his great adventure, I guess."


Skank looked around at the tents and the beach and the half-sunk hulks of abandoned ships that Governor Rogers was already getting people to break up and carry away. "I guess this really isn't a pirate island anymore."


Shandy laughed. "You just now noticed? Two days ago Rogers hanged eight men right over there, remember? - for violating the pardon. And we all just watched, and when it was done we all just wandered away."


"Sure, but - " Skank struggled with the complexity of the idea he was trying to express. "But just knowing old Thatch was out there somewhere ... "


Shandy shrugged and nodded. "And might come back. Yeah, I know. I can't picture even Woodes Rogers resisting him. Aye, soon now there'll be taxes and wages and laws about where to moor your boat. And you know something? I think magic will stop working here too, like it did back east."


"Goddamn." Skank absently took Shandy's cup, had a deep gulp and then handed it back. "Where'll you go, Jack? I'm thinking of signing on with Venner."


"Oh, I'll stay here till I run out of money for rum, and then I suppose I'll move on, get some kind of work. Hell, it's only a matter of time before England declares war on Spain again, and pirating will go back to being legal, and then maybe I'll enlist on a privateer. I don't know, it's a sunny day, and I've got rum - I'll worry about tomorrow's problems tomorrow."


"Huh. You used to be more - " This was Skank's day for abstract concepts. "More ... jumpy."


"Aye, I did. I remember that." He emptied the cup and handed it back for a refill. "But I believe soon I won't remember it."


Obscurely troubled, Skank nodded and wandered back toward the boats from which the new supplies were being unloaded.


Shandy sat down in the sand and grinned over his sun-warmed rum. More jumpy, he thought. Well, sure, Skank - I had things to be jumpy about. Two things. I wanted to confront my uncle Sebastian and expose to the world - and the law! - what he had done to my father; and, even more than that, I wanted to rescue Beth Hurwood from her father and tell her ... some conclusions I had come to. But neither of those things turned out to be possible.


Out in the harbor the Jenny's mainsail was jerking, and Shandy focused on it. Someone was apparently trying to raise her gaff-spar to a higher angle. Can't be done, friend, he thought. That old wrought iron gaff-saddle is so shot-bent that you're lucky you can raise the spar as high as you've got it - and frankly she takes the wind better with a few wrinkles up at the throat of the sail anyway. If old Hodge was still alive, or Davies, they'd tell you the same. You'd be better off spending your time replacing some of those overstrained hull-strakes.


Shandy remembered the overhaul he himself had given the Jenny, nearly four months ago now, after the old sloop had limped back into the harbor all scorched and sprung and jury-rigged, missing her old captain and half her crew. Woodes Rogers had arrived on New Providence Island only two weeks earlier, but the new governor had already driven out such unrepentant citizens as Charlie Vane, and had made speeches about civic pride, and raised the British flag, and distributed pamphlets from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge - and so no one was terribly surprised by the news that Philip Davies was dead and the Vociferous Carmichael spirited away. It seemed consistent with the times.


At first Shandy had ignored the old sloop. He had sailed her into the harbor on a Friday afternoon, and that evening, drunk, he made his best yet "bouillabaise endeavor," using up most of the remaining pirated garlic, saffron, tomatoes and olive oil on the island, and it drew praise even from Woodes Rogers himself, who had asked what all the commotion was about on the beach, and, being told, requested some of the seafood stew for himself and his captains; but Shandy tasted only enough of the court bouillon and rouille and seafood to be sure they were cooked correctly, and himself mainly consumed bottle after bottle of Davies' hoarded 1702 Latour bordeaux. He laughed at every joke and joined in the several group songs - none of them, to be sure, rendered quite as heartily as they'd been in the days before Rogers' arrival - but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere, and even Skank noticed and told him to eat and drink and worry about tomorrow's problems tomorrow.


Shandy had eventually wandered away from the fires and the ex-pirates and the nervously observing Navy officers, and had walked down to the shore. He had first set foot on this island only six weeks before, but already it was more of a home than he'd ever had, and he knew its people better than he had known those of any other community. He had made friends here, and seen them die, before the current governor's ships had been even white dots on the eternal blue horizon.


Then he had heard someone scuffing across the sand in the darkness behind him, and he turned, frightened - "Who is it?" he called.


A chunky figure in a ragged dress was silhouetted against the fire. "It's me, Jack," came a girl's low voice in reply. "Ann. Ann Bonny."


He remembered hearing that she was trying to get a divorce from Jim Bonny. "Ann." He hesitated, then slowly walked over to where she stood. He put his hands on her shoulders. "So many of them are dead now, Ann," he said, wondering if he was about to start crying. "Phil ... and Hodge ... Mr. Bird ... "

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***