Vanished As She SangA Joseph Fisher
Art by Allan Davis
Blackbeard really did stop at New Hampshire's Isles of Shoals in 1714, as had many pirates before him. Here's an account of what might have happened...
"... Aye, I've made more men into ghosts than any freebooter on the American Main, an' I done it with these!" The drunkard jerked a pistol and waved it around the tavern.
Fishermen and barmaids froze while the sea captain rattled on, "I've buried gold from Ocracoke Island to the Penobscot, and I always pitch a dead man atop m' chest to guard it! Anyone goes sniffing after my treasure'll get his top lights plucked! Ahoy, where's the beggar-maker? I'm dry! More rumbo! You! Stir yer stumps, you blatherskitin' scarecrow, 'fore I blow your guts out!"
"Aye aye, captain," said Joseph Fisher. Kelly, the tavern keeper, had slipped out the door a while back, and the barmaids were too terrified to approach the table, so the student propped his mop and hooked a redware jug off the bar.
The pistol centered between Joseph's eyes as he poured rum punch into the pirate's mug, which was solid gold and ringed with rubies. The Brescia was filigreed with silver, the muzzle big as a man's thumb and worn paper-thin from thousands of shots. Its owner growled, "D'ja ever hear that I shoot some of my own crew now and then to remind 'em who's captain?"
"Just what I'd expect of Blackbeard," returned Joseph. "How else did you become the Terror of Tortuga, the Curse of the Caribbean, and the Satan of the Sea Lanes? You're the most famous and fearsome pirate on the high seas!"
"Ye've got that right! Drink to the devil and have done with the rest!" Blackbeard hoisted his mug. "'Cept Satan never run off a British frigate!"
"Ran off a frigate!" Joseph feigned amazement. "Ah, but your pipe's gone out. Shall I fetch a light?"
"Eh? Oh, aye, hop to't." To hold his mug and fire his pipe, Blackbeard had to drop the pistol on the gummy table. Joseph fetched candlewood from the hearth and cupped the flame while the pirate puffed. Discreetly, Joseph spun the pistol with his elbow so the bore pointed at the wall. The tavern's patrons relaxed.
Drawing deep, Blackbeard blew smoke and rumbled, "Where was I? The frigate! We'd just boarded a Scotch snow full of coal off Hispaniola...."
Sprawled in a creaking chair, the pirate dominated the room like a thundercloud. Well over six feet tall, weighing more than eighteen stone, he wore a mariner's wide hat, a full-skirted black coat with gold buttons, and across his massive chest a leather sling holding five more pistols. His ugly sun-blasted face was wreathed by hair and beard black and shiny as coal and braided with bright ribbons for shoregoing. By contrast, Joseph Fisher was slight, pale and sunken-eyed, in snuff-brown clothes and broken shoes. His only color was long brown hair and bright red spots at his cheekbones that told why he could ignore a drunkard's pistol: it was hard to frighten a man cursed with consumptionÝ.
With the day done, the door admitted salty Atlantic wind and ever more islanders, until the tavern reeked of sweat, fish, rum, tobacco and woodsmoke from a fitful Rumford fireplace. Fishermen wore shaggy red Monmouth caps, thick sweaters, and leather jerkins shiny with mackerel scales, while a few slatterns wore men's castoffs and clogs and rags wrapped around their ankles. Aside from the three barmaids, the only well-dressed woman sat with Blackbeard, in red water-silk hemmed with gold lace, a yellow bonnet, and a cloak of dark green lined with satin. Beautiful and tall, she was barely twenty, with eyes wide and vacant. Joseph thought her a Portsmouth whore half-blind from liquor, though she'd drunk only small beer.
Though packed, the tavern was quiet, for none dared talk while the famous pirate spun his endless stories and laughed at his own jokes. Fishermen laughed along, for the pirate again toyed with his pistol as well as his pipe.
"...'Fore we boarded, I wove slowmatch into my beard and stuck more up under my hat, and lit 'em all around. T'Jesuits thought I was Satan himself with my hair afire and pistols barking! My slabaroons took turns ridin' 'em round the mainmast like hobby-horses and spanking 'em with cutlasses! The master feigned he din't speak the Queen's English, but I made 'im understand! I stood his mates along the gunwale and shot each one like knocking pigeons off a fence. Still the captain wouldn't talk, so I throttled him with my bare hands and fin'lly cracked his head 'gainst the foremast! He spewed brains all o'er my deck, and holystonin' be damned! I -"
"An' that's your best crack at making a man spill his guts?" interrupted a nasal voice.
Heads turned like cod in a school. Only the wind hissed around the door and shutters as Blackbeard growled, "Who said that?"
"I did! Ned Low, cap'n of the Montcova!"
Joseph Fisher peered through blue smoke. He'd seen the party come in, four hard-eyed trouble-hungry men, and displace fishermen from a table. The leader was a beardless youth with a Roman nose wearing a shapeless hat, a coat with filthy lace, and wrinkled legwrappings. Mismatched pistols and a rusty cutlass jammed his silk sash.
"Captain?" asked Blackbeard with surprising mildness. "What've you ever took that a puppy couldn't drag out of the tidewrack?"
"I've took plenty!" sneered the young Low. "Thirteen ships in six months, and that don't count fishboats! Ned Low'll be a bigger name than Captain Kidd afore long!"
"Kidd? Boston hired that Sea William to catch me, and all 'e did was brain his own mate with a bucket and get turned off the ladder!" Blackbeard waggled his pistol, making Joseph and others shy back. "See here, green-hemp! I've took more ships and killed more men than inhabit these islands, so log some leagues before you anchor your arse at Blackbeard's table, ye puking puddling!"
"I don't need your company, old man, or your counsel!" The young man's face flushed. "I don't play with men, I make 'em feared!"
"Oh? How's that, boy?"
"You make one man talk by tormenting another!" insisted Ned Low. "Y' pick three prisoners, one of 'em the quartermaster or purser, the man who knows 'is stuff. You ask the first one, Where's the goods? Before he can say anythin', you blow his head off or ram a boarding pike through his lights. Then you asks the second, Where is it? He blithers, but you just kill 'im. Now the purser's cryin' to tell you the solemn truth! Promise to let 'im live, and he'll tell you 'bout his mother's birthmarks! And when you do kill him, he's the most surprised bloke afloat!" The young rakehell and his cutthroats laughed.
Tormented himself by smoke and foul air, Joseph Fisher rubbed his chest and reflected he should stay outdoors. But he was intrigued. While he discredited most of Blackbeard's alleged atrocities as braggadocio, Ned Low's chilling claims rang true, as if the man sailed for torture and not treasure.
"It's watchin' and waitin' scares a man!" Ned Low ranted. "'Is best friend gets his privy parts sawed off with a blunt knife, he prays to God he ain't next! I once cut off a master's ears and nose and made the first mate eat 'em, then cut open his belly to show he'd done it! Then I tied both to their own mast and fired the lot!"
"I recollect ye now," rumbled Blackbeard. "You fly distress flags and dress as women to lure merchanters. Ye press fishermen and threaten to hang 'em 'less they jump up and down and curse the name of Cotton Mather. So ye're a codswallop as well as a coward."
Eyes starting, Ned Low ground his jaw. "At least I ain't a jack-weight sheep's head who couldn't cross a quarterdeck in a southeast squall!"
Blackbeard puffed his pipe. "Ye're a liar, too." And fired his pistol.
Joseph's ears were boxed by the explosion. Everyone jumped, and only Ned Low's youth saved him. Quick as a snake, the boy hurled his chair backwards as the pistol ball punched a hole in the wall. Blackbeard vaulted from his chair, his hat brushing the ceiling beams. One of Low's pirates drew a knife, lunged and stabbed, but the giant waded in so the blade fetched in his thick coat, then hammered his pistol on the man's head. Another villain flashed a cutlass, but Blackbeard grabbed the blade at the hilt and snapped it off, then punched him flat. Before Ned Low and the last lotman could even rise, Blackbeard flipped the table on them and stamped hard as if crushing rats.
Squirming free, Ned Low scurried for the door. Bawling like a bull, Blackbeard jerked and cocked a pistol while snatching up the spilled table, which he flung the length of the room. Maple split against the jamb as Ned Low pelted outside. Blackbeard jumped to the doorway and fired his pistol into the wind, jerked another and fired again, then stood glaring while smoke blew back to wreathe his face. Turning, Blackbeard made the sturdy fisherman grunt as he grabbed the pirates by their belts and pitched them outside, then slammed the door.
In a stunned pause, Joseph Fisher yelled, "Three cheers for Captain Blackbeard! Hip hip, huzzah!" Patrons joined in, and the towering pirate actually smiled, a ghastly sight, as he holstered his pistols and crashed in his seat. Flinging Joseph a fat coin that proved to be a Louis D'Or, he bellowed, "Rumbo for everyone!"
Roistery rose as barmaids bustled and fishermen hoisted. Blackbeard drained his gold mug while his star-eyed consort leaned and whispered. The pirate grinned lecherously. "Is'at so? Aye, bonny! Eh? Ahoy, s'anyone here read French?"
Chopping sugar, Joseph called, "I read French."
Blackbeard spat on the floor and relit his pipe with flint and steel. "I pinched this off some Frogs. What's't say?"
The big man lobbed his golden goblet, which Joseph almost bobbled because of its weight. Joseph translated an inscription, "`For His Most Catholic Majesty King Louis XIV, Praise from His Faithful Subjects in Martinique.' Impressive! You should send his majesty a cup inscribed with your name to bind you as brothers: the King of France and the King of the Atlantic."
"By the Lord Harry, I've half a mind to do't! It'd cramp the Papist bastard's bowels, worrying if my pirate fleet'd come calling on royalty!" Blackbeard roared with laughter and his woman tittered as he staggered to his feet and took his wife's hand as if entering a minuet. "Come along, my dear. And you, Jack Adams, bear up."
"Aye aye, captain." Joseph surprised himself with his easy obedience, but Blackbeard exuded authority like a king. He abandoned the bar to the barmaids.
An islander burst in at the door. "Knife fight! Trulls knife-fightin'!" Shoalers boiled from the room to see, and the trio followed.
Blackbeard and Joseph immediately looked windward, where the gray sky was undershot by white mist. In the narrow street, inside a ring of shouting men, two women shuffled and swiped with fish knives. One was slashed across the shoulder and the other lacked a hank of greasy brown hair. Drunk, they screeched and spat, "bitch", "bawd", and "scold" being their mildest epithets.
"Here now, cease that skirlin'! My goody don't like to see blood!" The biggest man on the island, Blackbeard bulled through the crowd and batted with both hands. Clouted across the head, the women flopped in flurries of skirts. Fishermen huffed in disgust and turned back to the tavern. The pirate swung for the shore, Joseph in tow. The student commented, "`In His will is our peace.'"
The Isles of Shoals were tiny fractured rocks set hard in the teeth of the Atlantic, yet men crowded onto them to take "dun fish", the richest cod in the world. Star Island was a ragged half-mile of rude paths, salt-streaked huts and clapboard cottages, gardens of wild anemones and dogtooth violets, a brick meetinghouse and stone blockhouse, stacks of cordwood and lobster traps and hogsheads, seine nets and sails hung to dry, fishhouses jutting outward on piers, and running everywhere in between the drying racks called flakes, where the east wind set the cod fillets shivering and jittering. The wind rattled rooves, and whipped spume from the surf, and made red-winged blackbirds kite close to the ground. Joseph mused, "`Wind in the east, bad for man and beast.'"
As the sun set, weary fishermen heaved bulging nets and baskets onto a long stone wharf cribbed with red oak. Gosport Harbor was actually a gappy pocket amidst three islands. Fishing boats ringed the harbor, enough wood, seemingly, to bridge to the mainland ten miles "norwest by north half north" where the Piscataqua split Maine and New Hampshire. Most of the islands stood scarcely twenty feet above the churning ocean, and Joseph often wondered why one rogue wave didn't sweep them clean.
"Row us out, pikestaff," growled Blackbeard. A captain's gig was banked for six oars and a dropped mast, but shallow-drafted enough for one man to row. With his bulk, Blackbeard plumped in the bow while Joseph faced the woman at the stern. Joseph shipped the oars and sculled past Grand Banks ketches, pinks, pinnaces, and shallops. Queen Anne's Revenge towered above them all, but her master glowered at a high-castled galleon, filthy and ill-fitted and flying a red skeleton for a Jolly Roger, named Montcova. Ned Low's vessel.
Blackbeard's lady spoke. "It must be wonderful to speak a foreign language, sir."
Her voice dripped with southern honey, so she wasn't a local whore dressed-up, and the pirate had called her "goody" for "goodwife", so Joseph plied his most respectful tones. "As you say, milady. `Je parle espagnol a` Dieu, Italien aux femmes, francais aux hommes, et allemand 'a mon cheval.' `I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.' It's an honor to welcome you to New England, Lady Teach. Might I add, Pulchritudo et prudentia conjugere rarae est. `Rarely are beauty and wisdom so joined.'"
"Oh, la! Thank you, bold sir!" A smile lit her violet eyes, which held no more savvy than a rabbit's. "These provincials must be enraptured to greet my husband. It's unlikely such a famous gentleman as Captain Blackbeard has ever visited these parts."
"Clarum et venerabile nomem gentibus. `A name illustrious and revered by nations.'" Though privately Joseph doubted that New Hampshiremen would turn out to greet Jesus Christ, flattery was the sauce of the day. "Do you enjoy the celebrity of such a famous marriage? The noblesse often find the devotion of the roturiers a burden."
"Fame hampers the first families, it's true," she chattered, "but my husband remains humble and pious. He's devoted to me, and sees to my welfare, permitting no botherances."
"A lucky woman, and luckier man." Joseph smiled as the lucky husband chuckled. Yet the student wondered how long Blackbeard's devotion would last on this, by some counts, seventh honeymoon. According to legend, he'd shot off the toes of one wife who wouldn't dance for him, and growing tired of others, had locked them in his treasure vault before setting out to sea. Yet this woman seemed oblivious to his fearsome reputation. A mooncalf, then, fey, touched. Like Joseph himself, whom the Abenakis considered a m'teoulin blessed with second sight.
"Do you inhabit these isles, good sir? You haven't the look of a fisherman."
Blackbeard snorted. "He's the look of someone washed up by the tide and nibbled by fiddler crabs!"
Joseph chuckled and sculled, slowly to conserve his short wind. "I don't live anywhere, milady, so one place is good as the next." Joseph had helped a cooper ferry barrel hoops and staves to the islands, but the man had drunk his profits and sailed without him. The student didn't minded, for these islands were reputed to benefit bad lungs. So he swamped in the tavern and explored the rocks, and studied a new Commedia by Dante Alighieri, whom Milton had praised. Touring Heaven and Hell and Purgatory, Joseph soaked in late spring sunshine and Italian.
Crabbing across the harbor, the boat's occupants saw islands at all points of the compass. Yet while Star was crammed with huts and humans and the odd cow, a bigger island at the north lay abandoned. Cottages had collapsed, stone houses bore stove rooves, and only seagulls, sumach, and sheep sprouted. Blackbeard rumbled, "Why don't these muttonheads roost on that island? Is it cursed?"
"Worse, sir," joked Joseph with scant breath. "When the Crown extended the border between these shoals, Hog Island and Smuttynose fell to Massachusetts. The shoalers immediately uprooted to the New Hampshire side of the line. Even the island sheep are truculent, and must be shot for the table."
"My kind of folks," Blackbeard chuckled. "Puritan laws and rates give a man piles."
Joseph steered around the great dripping stern cable into the shadow of the Revenge and gently bumped the hull. Blackbeard scaled slippery battens screwed to the side and disappeared through the entry port. Joseph expected a bosun's chair to be swung out, but Lady Teach hiked her skirts and climbed too, petticoats poufing. More slowly on worn soles, Joseph clambered after.
"`All hope abandon, ye that enter here.'" The student shivered with delight and fear to venture aboard a pirate ship. The masts were ringed by pikes and spears, the sides were crammed by forty or more cannon, and tarred stays and running rigging soared overhead in dizzying webs till high in the sky flapped a black flag where a horned skeleton stabbed a bleeding heart. Most of the crew had sailed to the bars and whorehouses of wicked Portsmouth in Blackbeard's other ship, The Flying Scot, so only a handful idled behind, drinking Barbados rum and smoking Brazilian tobacco: a Negro aprickle with yaws, a one-legged Carib cook, a European who lacked a nose and ears for having once stolen from other pirates. Peering everywhere at once, Joseph passed under a canvas tarpaulin probably slung to shield Lady Teach's complexion from sun, and clattered down the aft companionway.
Formerly a French merchantman's, the great cabin boasted reds and blues and gilt lit by a transom of bullseye panes, and stank of sour sheets, perfume, liquor, varnish, and cabbage. The hulking Blackbeard filled the cabin until Joseph felt like a seal circling a whale.
Lady Teach excused herself behind a canvas curtain, reminding her husband to "nap," but the pirate was distracted by a brown bottle. Pouring brandy into his gold goblet, Blackbeard waved at a chart table hung on chains and littered with documents, candles, bottles, clothes, a sword, and a boot. "We took a French ketch - a 'schooner', they called it - and lugged barrels of some white muck out'a the hold, but we don't know what t'is. See if't's in them manifests and I'll give ye a Vigo Crown." Crashing into a folding chair, the pirate mused, "Reminds me of the time we burned down half of Santo Domingo..."
Unhurried, Joseph sorted scabrous papers: an introduction to business partners, a plea to a wife to light votive candles, clearance by a surgeon at Brest. He wondered if the writers had been marooned or impressed or sunk into the depths. A bill of lading crossed his hand. "Ah. Nineteen hogsheads? Is it alum?"
Blackbeard paused with goblet to mouth. "Egad! I'll bet that's wha't'is! You dust it on wounds and it stings like fire ants. Bonny! New York'll pay through the nose for't. Every manjack there drips with the clap! I sailed my fleet up the Hudson once..." Rising, Joseph poured more brandy while Blackbeard scratched bedbugs and told tales of far-off lands and ferocious battles and close escapes.
Hours had passed when a sailor cried from above, "Cap'n! Islanders 'longside! Looks like a boardin' party!"
"Boarders?" Blackbeard flew from his seat and clomped up the steep companionway. Joseph trotted to catch up.
The east wind had freshened, so the sky roiled like boiled lead and catspaws ticked Blackbeard's broad hat and Joseph's loose hair. Past Star Island, whitecaps burst against a breakwater.
To starboard bobbed a gam of whaleboats crammed with thirty or more fishermen armed with gaffs, boathooks, cutlasses, a blunderbuss and a few fowlers. An older man stood up in the foremost boat, balanced on rubber knees, and tugged his shaggy cap respectfully. "Ahoy, Captain Blackbeard! Oliver Hunkins, fishin' master! Us shoalers've formed a magistrates court under Newfoundland Law to ask you a question! Meaning no disrespect, sir, but why's that skiff moored to your hawser?"
"What?" Blackbeard's bawl could have cut through a Hatteras hurricane. "Sheer off, you brown-water bastard, else I drop a roundshot through your strakes! All you corkbrained catsos can..." Sulferous curses smoked the air. Fisherman tugged oars to move out of pistol range, or perhaps to board.
Only Joseph looked aft. Tied to the anchor cable was a tombstone wherry, one of scores dotted around the islands, common as a periwinkle.
The fishing master's face flushed red, but he clung like a barnacle to his question. "Sir, that boat's Phil Babb's! He's one of us, and he's gone missin'! We want to know, did you kill him and pitch his body atop your treasure chest?"
"Are you drunk or daft?" Gallons of liquor had mellowed the pirate, Joseph reckoned, because he argued, not attacked. "Why'n hell would I kill one o' you doddypoll sprats? I ain't killed anyone in most of a fortnight, and them was just Frogs! Who told you about my damned treasure chest?"
"You did," supplied Joseph. Blackbeard whirled as if he'd been stabbed. Alcohol fumes could have blistered paint. "You bragged about always killing a man so his ghost will chase off treasure seekers."
"So, Captain," Hunkins demanded from below, "have you buried booty here'bouts?"
"None know that but the devil and m'self!" Blackbeard drew a pistol from his leather sling, perhaps unknowing, but Joseph saw the fishermen stiffen. Standing his own quarterdeck, Blackbeard had only contempt for a committee of citizens, but Joseph knew fishermen thrived by their skill and muscle, and feared neither God nor the Atlantic, and certainly not pirates. These thirty were poised like hunting dogs with weapons ready. Lady Teach came on deck and fluttered her hands at the prospect of violence.
It came with a clatter of sea boots as fishermen rushed from behind, having swarmed up the port side.
"By the Lord Harry! Ye'll die on a dunghill!" Blackbeard's roar scared seagulls into flight all over the harbor as he cocked his pistol. Jumping, Joseph Fisher shoved the brawny arm into the air. The Brescia barked and punched a hole in a furled sail. Flinging Joseph wide, Blackbeard knocked down four burly fishermen easily as parting seagrass. The ship's skeleton crew jerked knives like flashes of lightning, but dropped back as Hunkins's blunderbuss blatted. Blackbeard grabbed for another pistol -
- and balked as Joseph Fisher caught it with two cold hands. Dodging a fist, he gabbled, "Captain, please, for your lady's sake! You're outnumbered! Wait! I know you're innocent! May I pose a question that will settle it, so we'll have no need to fight?"
Red-rimmed eyes glared, but finally the giant jammed his pistol into his harness. "Very well! Talk to these sea lawyers! But get 'em off my ship, or when my crew docks I'll rake this island with iron, so help me God!"
Panting, Joseph turned to the fishing master. "Mister Hunkins, I rowed us aboard three hours ago and circled that anchor cable. There was no boat tied on then."
"So?" Hunkins scowled, then, "You were swampin' in the tavern."
"True. But at present I'm sifting privity for Captain Blackbeard. May I study Philip Babb's boat?"
"What for? And why should we listen to you? You're - no one we know." Or "nothing", Joseph guessed.
"Equally true. But -" The student swallowed a sigh of exasperation. Why couldn't men see what they saw? "Your differences hinge on this boat. If Babb's gone missing from it, perhaps it can tell us where, no?"
"I - s'pose." Grizzling, Hunkins ordered two men in a whaleboat to fetch the wherry alongside. Feeling the clumsiest man on the Isles of Shoals, Joseph scaled slimy battens until he hung over churning water, then thumped down in the wherry.
Twenty feet long, the "peapod" was high-sided, flat-bottomed, and fitted with the local tombstone-shaped sternpost. It was stepped for a mast, but held only a hank of rope, a wooden bailer tied with cordline, and an oar. Above the rising wind, Joseph asked the whaleboatmen, "How do you know this is Babb's boat?"
"We all know it," scoffed a fishermen, and fingered a gouge in the gunwale. "S's'where he cut loose a dogfish with a hatchet."
Joseph touched twin tholepines. "We lack an oar."
One man ventured, "Phil might'a pitched o'erboard when he caught a crab or the wind backed, an' took an oar with 'im."
The rope tied to the thwart had been cut. "What was fastened here?"
"Anchor. Phil just used a chunk of granite."
"Why would he cut it free?"
"If't snagged on the bottom."
"T'happens." But both men mumbled at oddities. "Phil wouldn't go out with the wind makin'." "He would if he was rumrunning'." "Naw..."
Again Joseph mounted for the deck. A raindrop struck his eye and made him flinch. He caught the words, "...nor wouldn't he run by night wi'at cutter nosing 'bout -"
"Cutter?" Dropping to the deck, he asked Hunkins, "A royal warship?"
Blackbeard barked, "How many guns?"
"Thirty-four," said the fishing master. "'S'not a cutter, actually, 's'a two-deck galley. Holland built her at Newcastle."
"And my crew ashore grapplin' whores and bottles!" groaned the giant. "The governor'll learn for certain!"
Joseph's deep-sunk eyes glowed like candles in a skull and made Hunkins squirm. "Is not Her Majesty's Navy guilty of hailing ships and impressing men whenever they please?"
"When there's a war on." Hunkins conceded.
A fisherman objected, "Means naught to a shorthanded bosun." Another added, "They's always a war somewhere."
"So," Joseph concluded, "Philip Babb may have tumbled overboard. Or may have been plucked up by the warship, either pressed or arrested for smuggling. Or may be home in bed."
"He ain't that!" snapped Hunkins. "Stop making up stories! This pirate might've killed him!"
"Or he might not've. And I can prove my premise."
"Were the captain to dig up his treasure and exhibit no body, you'd accord his innocence, no?" Agitated, French inflections crept into Joseph's speech.
"Captain Blackbeard, will you agree? Before anyone comes to harm? And before the royal cutter or a storm makes an appearance? You can always rebury the chest."
"Be damned! They'll divide it amongst themselves and feed my carcass to the crabs!"
"Belay that!" snapped Hunkins. "We ain't after yer red-handed gold! We're honest men an' want nothing but to know what's happened to Phil Babb, our friend!"
Rain blew in, gusting in curtains. The ship heeled and bobbed. Blackbeard looked aloft and below, gauging wind and tide and whether his anchorage would hold. Oliver Hunkins waited. Joseph Fisher coughed in the mist. His mind churned with notions and guesses, especially since a space of open water now beckoned in the crowded harbor, but he stayed mum: the waters were murky enough.
Blackbeard shook his black head and sodden ribbons, trying to shake off sleep and drunkenness, but only shedding rain like a sheepdog. "Ver' well, I'll swear to't."
"Where's it buried?" demanded Hunkins.
The pirate pointed aport into wet twilight. "Yon wester isle."
"Londoner's." An uninhabited knob a mile west.
"Now, Olly?" asked a man.
"Tide's ebbed," said Blackbeard. "It's now or wait for the turn."
"We'll go," agreed Hunkins. The fishermen slid overside.
The pirate turned to Lady Teach's panicked stare and gently kissed her hand. "Bide a while, my queen. I'll return soonest I transact business with these gentlemen." The woman smiled at the nicety but pulled her cloak close about her shoulders. Scaling the battens, Blackbeard dropped into Hunkins's whaleboat and almost swamped it. Though outnumbered thirty to one, no one dared ask for his leather sling of pistols. "Give way, you scurvy rats!"
Cursed with curiosity, and oddly amused that Blackbeard, of all people, should stand accused of murder, Joseph wondered if he could further intrude when a warm hand caught his arm. Blackbeard's wife begged, "Please, good sir, go with them. Aid my husband as you may."
"Madame, I -" Joseph halted. The woman's big eyes, bright as violets and just as senseless, unnerved him. "Yes, ma'am."
Hunkins had tolled off six men for the search party, but first needed to go ashore to fetch lanterns and spades. Gloom gathered while Joseph Fisher huddled and shivered in the whaleboat. Blackbeard sat silent, or else dozed like a wardog before battle. Finally Hunkins and the fishermen-as-magistrates returned with four pierced-tin lanterns, and the twin sails were hoisted by their firefly flicker.
Snatched by the gusting breeze, the whaleboat whisked into a rain-lashed darkness steepled with gnashing foaming rocks, and again Joseph marveled at the calm surety of the shoalers. Within minutes he detected a halfmoon of luminous beach pounded by surf, and thought of Dante. "`I came into a place void of all light, which bellows like the sea in tempest when it is combatted by warring winds.'"
Tiller and sheets were eased, oars dipped, and soon the keel kissed gravel. Blackbeard stepped into foaming surf and strode north up the beach, mounted nigh-invisible rocks where seaweed bulbs popped underfoot, then bulled into bayberry and huckleberry bushes that made the fishermen curse. Short of breath and sluefooted, Joseph lagged while rain and spume sluiced down his bare head.
Alone, far in back, he heard a clonking above the hiss of waves and water, an artificial sound. Reasoning he couldn't get lost on such a small island, he veered from Blackbeard's party and scrambled over rocks and seaweed down into a hollow.
Groping in pitch blackness, the student sprained a finger identifying a shallow boat with a furled mast expertly tied to a point of rock and pinned by the wind. It was impossible to be sure, but the craft seemed familiar. For a full minute he pondered, then muttered, "`A great flame follows a tiny spark.'"
Ducking his head against the storm, aiming for pinpricks of light, Joseph stumbled through wiry bushes to where Blackbeard paused on a prominence to get his bearings. The student slipped and caught hold of the pirate's leather sling of pistols. Blackbeard cursed, but Joseph hissed, "Captain! Don't fly straight to your treasure! Diverge elsewhere!"
"What? You're the codfish told me to dig it up!"
"True, but we're not alone on this isle!"
"Which way, Cap'n?" Hunkins's teeth chattered. "By God, mebbe we shoulda waited for sunup!"
Blackbeard swabbed water from his face, announced, "That way!" and marched off steady as a frigate into battle. Fishermen cursed at his backtracking. Joseph used the huge pirate as a shield against the weather. Shivering, with breeches and stockings and shoulders wet to the skin, fought to suppress the treacherous burbling in his lungs. If he began coughing, he'd erupt in gouts of hot blood, so he swallowed hard, plodded on, and bided his time.
Hunkins yelled above the wind and rain, "Captain! Where the hell are ye leading us?"
"Here!" Blackbeard's roar boomed like cannon fire. "Bring up yer spades! My treasure's -"
"We'll take that!" piped a voice.
Shoalers whirled as from the darkness rushed pirates with Ned Low in the lead. Night lanterns snapped open to reveal Sea Service muskets with oilskin lock boots. Islanders goggled, numb with surprise. Joseph counted eight pirates, as would fit in the boat he'd found. Montcova couldn't be far off.
"Ned Low, you whoreson!" Blackbeard yanked a Brescia whose silver chasing glistened like lightning. Flint snapped on frizzen - and failed to ignite sodden powder.
"Give up the treasure, Teach, or ye're a dead man!" Ned Low fiddled loose the musket boot and took aim at some shoalers. Yellow-orange flame split the night as fishermen hurled themselves flat. Blinded by the flash, Low failed to see he'd hit no one. "We've six more muskets and all a-prime! Show us the treasure!"
"Rot in Hell, whelp!" Blackbeard flexed two great paws to throttle the younger man, who squawked and yelled for another gun. "Your head'll hang from my sprit chains before dawn -"
"G-ghost!" shrieked a pirate.
"Phil's - ghost!" hollered a fisherman.
All saw it.
Rising from the ground, lurching towards Blackbeard and Ned Low, loomed a white blur taller than a man, tall as a waterspout. Upraised arms made long tendrils of gray-white flutter and snap like the wings of a death's head. Wavering, rippling, topping the rocks, the ghost took a long lunging step -
- and men bolted. A musket clattered on rock, a lantern crashed. Fishermen and pirates galloped helter-skelter. Arms windmilling, Blackbeard spun in the air and stampeded away in sea boots. Knocked sprawling, Joseph Fisher slammed his spine across rocks and coughed as if his chest would split.
The student's scalp crawled as the specter loomed. His overeducated mind recalled that a ghost would disappear if bespoken. Swallowing twice, he croaked, "Begone! Go! Depart this place, apparition, this land of the living - Uhh!"
The thing leaned closer. A sob keened above the wind. "My husband! My husband! Where has he gone?"
"Lady Teach!" Clutching his chest to still his pounding heart, Joseph clawed upright in blackness. The tall girl-woman had wrapped in a canvas tarpaulin, no doubt the awning from the ship's companionway, and pulled a stiff flap over her hood against the rain, exaggerating her height. "Milady, what are you doing out here?"
"I wished to help my husband! Those wretched men seek our treasure! My treasure!"
"Yours?" Joseph blinked rain from his eyes. All he saw was a blur of white with a hollow face.
"That chest is my dowry!" she called above wind and rain. "My husband promised it me on our wedding night! We buried it together, he and I!"
Joseph marveled that Blackbeard had trusted anyone to know where lay his treasure, then his curiosity bumped on. "Did Captain Blackbeard bury a man with it? To make a guardian ghost?"
"Heavens, no! My husband tells a - a great many tales for the amusement of others. Men boast, you know, and sometimes embellish the truth." The woman looked not at Joseph, but distantly as if addressing invisible accusers, or more ghosts. Unnerved, the student turned but found nothing. "I thought to dig up our chest. To move it, you see, to protect it! I've a spade and a lantern. Will you help me? Move it? My husband will lead those dreadful men away. Together we can shift -"
"Yes. Yes, I'll help, madame. Where is it?"
"No, wait." Rain and surf clashed and mingled in her pause. "My husband swore me never to reveal its hiding place!"
Exasperated, Joseph wanted to shout, but she was already flustered. Queer how this moonstruck woman could entertain such a grand and brave scheme, having obviously sailed the captain's gig to this desolate island in darkness, alone. Joseph glimpsed why Blackbeard might have plucked her from a bevy of beauties in Charleston or Savannah. "Madame, I swear by the Gospel never to reveal its hiding place!"
"Oh, that will serve, I expect." Clutching the white sail close, she bumbled across the rocks. "It's not far."
"`Into the eternal darkness, into fire and into ice.'" Joseph was so cold his tingling feet and hands betrayed him, but he had to help a damsel in distress. And see real pirate treasure. And unearth the truth, whether a body guarded the booty or not. Even help Blackbeard, a desire he couldn't fathom. Surely, curiosity would kill him before consumption could.
Light glimmered as Lady Teach stumbled down into a flume where surf boomed and seethed through seaweed. A lantern showed a patch of gravel no larger than a tabletop, only visible because the tide was down. Blackbeard's wife proferred a spade. "Here! It's here!"
Joseph shoveled against the tide. Seawater and pebbles swirled into the hole, and he could barely see the dark spade against dark gravel, but he dug diligently. Three feet down, steel clanked on iron. Joseph scraped and scraped, but the hole refilled. Dropping to his knees, for he could get no wetter, the student identified by touch an oak chest strapped with iron. He tried to lift it, then rock it, but it might have been bolted to bedrock. Or stuffed with gold and silver.
"I can't budge it, milady! It's too heavy!"
"It is, it is! Even my husband, robust as he is, struggled to lower it!"
Rising, Joseph shook his head, unseen in the dark. He didn't care about treasure, only that no body blocked the hole. "Your dowry is safe, madame! Let's get back before we perish with cold! `Less than a drop of blood remains in me that does not tremble!'"
The woman agreed. Scraping a few shovelfuls, leaving the tide to bury the rest, the slight man and tall woman used their hands to negotiate the rocks. Rain had ceased, though wind still whipped spume. Lady Teach led to another hollow where bobbed the captain's gig that Joseph had found familiar. Though fog still obscured the western mainland, gloom lessened as the sky cracked in the east. The shore glowed rose-red while the sea was streaked with violet. Joseph shivered. "`With the color that paints the morning and evening clouds that face the sun, I saw then the whole heaven suffused.'"
With the tide flowing, the odd pair launched the gig. Uncertain how to tack against the wind, Joseph rowed, feathering his oars against the wind. Again he was boggled that this elfstruck woman had sailed alone through a dark void, and said so. Her father was a merchantman, she explained in liquid tones, and she'd lived below decks as a child. Her father often "transacted business" with Blackbeard, and she'd met the pirate while young, and become infatuated with him. "Then he was widowed, and mourning, and asked for my hand, and paid quite a handsome bride fee, the talk of Charleston!" Touching and romantic, Joseph acknowledged, but could imagine the other side. A late child born to bourgeois contrabandists, with dismal prospects, had been sold out from underfoot for a substantial profit. "`Love hath so long possess'd me for his own, and made his lordship so familiar.'"
Rowing backwards, Joseph glanced over his shoulder. A French-rigged brig was newly moored alongside Revenge; Blackbeard's other ship, The Flying Scot, had returned from Portsmouth. He expected to see Gosport atwinkle, with pirates milling and fishermen preparing for the day, but the wharves were oddly deserted.
A stutter of pops caught his attention. "`The oars, till now smitten upon the water, all pause at a whistle's sound!'" With long pulls he steered for the island.
As the boat bumped the dock, Joseph heard more shots. Fires licked at two cottages. Men shouted and grappled. In gray half-light their drab clothes and faces all looked alike, but gradually Joseph discerned that Blackbeard's crew warred with Ned Low's while fisherfolk laid low. Lady Teach skipped from the gig. "There's my husband!" Feeling a vague protective urge, or else a kinship with an addle-pate, Joseph jogged after.
Amidst many scuffles, Blackbeard and a gang of sea rovers rushed from behind a cottage, screaming and swinging pistols and cutlasses, to scatter Ned Low's pirates into slippery alleys. A cry from his wife gave Blackbeard pause, and he shouted for Joseph to hold her.
Gaining the tavern, the giant kicked the door to kindling. Hiding fishermen boiled out the door, but like a shark breasting a school of cod, Blackbeard rammed inside. Joseph handed Lady Teach to a fishwife's care and sidled to the doorway.
"Ned Low, ye larcenous dog!" boomed Blackbeard. The ragged Roman-nosed youth cowered by the massive brick chimney. "You'll go to worms!"
"Captain! Sir!" Low held a pistol in one hand and a cutlass in the other, both forgotten. He'd dealt death to dozens of others, but cringed before his own. "I beg you listen! I didn't -"
"You did!" Jumping inside, Joseph averted Blackbeard's arm. "You were humiliated by the captain, so thirsted for revenge. Philip Babb came to you, no doubt with some scheme. He was a smuggler, and probably reckoned his local knowledge and your crew could find Blackbeard's treasure, or force him to reveal its location. Yet you devised your own scheme. You accosted Babb so he lost an oar, tied his granite anchor around his neck, and sank him, then tied his wherry to Blackbeard's anchor cable! Didn't you? Such a petty prank a child might manufacture; a spiteful trick to stir up trouble but keep you out of sight!"
"And see me swing at the yardarm!" Blackbeard aimed his dread Brescia as Ned Low gibbered denials. "Save your lies for Satan, shab-rag!"
From far off, a triple pom pom-pom! beat the air.
The tavern exploded.
Bricks, mortar, ironware, and wood were blasted to flinders and blown all over the island. Smacked by a bench, Blackbeard bowled out the door and took Joseph with him so both dumped in a tangle. Blackbeard lacked his great cocked hat, and his black braids and beribboned beard were chalky. "Blood and bones! That was a cannonball!"
"It struck the chimney!" Joseph's head rang. "But who -"
"Man-o'-war!" came a distant cry. "Fifth-rate beatin' to windward!"
Staggering around the shattered tavern, rubbing grit from his eyes, Joseph saw that fog still shrouded the coastline, but from the mist tore a thirty-four gun warship, three masts abloom with sails, the red ensign of the Royal Navy snapping at her taffrail.
"Revengers!" Blackbeard's feud with Ned Low was forgotten. "To the boats! Turn out, Revengers!"
Pandemonium swept the island like a northeast gale. Pirates boiled from alleys and doorways to thunder hell-for-leather for the harbor. Fishermen dodged or were knocked flying. In minutes, it seemed to Joseph, every lotman on the island had vaulted into rowboats and swarmed aboard ships. Even Ned Low had miraculously crawled from the tavern wreckage and sculled to his ship with a panicked crew. Axes chopped anchor cables, and the ships fell away north with a bone in their teeth while the royal warship fought to tack and heel. Within minutes the pirate fleet vanished into the fogbank blurring the Maine coast.
Joseph Fisher shook his head, reflecting that pirates lived by pluck and luck, but their allotted time sputtered down as surely as a cannon fuse. Hunkins, the fishing master, approached with a hard squint. "I thought you was his clerk."
"No. `The devil is not so black as he is painted,' you know. Captain Blackbeard didn't murder Babb and shove his body in the treasure hole."
"I heard. T'was Low. Too bad 'bout Phil, but he were a mooncusser, goin' where he shou'n't."
Joseph Fisher nodded towards the pursuing brig. "Someone carried word to the governor that Blackbeard's men dallied in the cathouses?"
"That were me," said Hunkins. "I dispatched two men after dark to 'lert the governor. Damn the Royal Navy! I told 'em Blackbeard and Low might be carousing in Kelly's ordinary, but I figured they'd land marines, not fire on us! But you can't expect a snipe to cipher. At least we're shet of pirates. Mainlanders think we're trash out here, you know, that we hide because we're dishonest and we mollycoddle pirates. But fishin's not a life a crooked man would choose. Any work's easier. Any."
"`Consider your origin; you were not born to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.'" Joseph rubbed his eyes, wearied by a long cold night.
And opening them, beheld Blackbeard's seventh wife.
The tall womanly girl stared out to sea. Shoalers shied away as if from a ghost, until she and Joseph were left alone. Thunderstruck, the student gawped, "Uh, milady, I..."
"I have no fear," she pronounced. "I only need wait. My husband will return for me."
But Joseph Fisher, who sometimes saw the future, didn't believe it. As surely as Blackbeard would hang, his wife would wander the shore and wait without relief. "`Yet, turned back as she was into the world, against her pleasure and against good usage, from her heart's veil never was she loosened.'"
So, Joseph realized, the pirate got a ghost to guard his treasure after all.
"`Thus did she speak to me, and then began to sing Ave Maria, and vanished as she sang, like to a heavy thing through the deep water.'"
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