Authors: John Drake
Skull and Bones
77-85 Fulham Palace Road,
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2010
Copyright © John Drake 2010
John Drake asserts the moral right to
be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
Set in Sabon by Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Clays Ltd, St Ives plc
For my dear sister
I am very grateful to those who have given much-valued help
and advice in my efforts to write a decent novel. As always
I thank my editors Julia Wisdom and Anne O'Brien, for their
scholarly reviews, some splendid ideas, and their careful
weeding out of my errors. Also I particularly thank my agent,
Antony Topping, and my son, who together prevented this
novel from turning into a historical documentary on Colonial
America, which might have made a nice textbook, but nobody
would have bought it for fun.
Table of Contents
Three bells of the first dog watch
20th July 1735 (Old Style)
Aboard Isabelle Bligh
The six-pound shot came aboard with a scream and a hiss, smashing one of the mainmast deadeyes, punching holes through the longboat secured over the waist, taking off the arm and shoulder of a seaman, as neat as a surgeon's knife… and throwing the limb shivering at his feet, as if still alive. The man screamed, and sat down flat with his back to the windward bulwark.
In the horror of the moment, Olivia Rose, sixteen years old and at sea for the first time in her life, turned from her father and clung to the heavy bulk of the lad who'd been doing his best to stand between her and the flying shot.
"Get below!" cried Josiah Burstein, her father. "And get away from
He snatched her away, blinking nervously at the boy, for Burstein was a small man while the boy, also only sixteen, was broad and heavy with thick limbs, big fists and a dark, ugly face. But the boy stood back, nodding.
"Get below, Livvy," he said. "Your pa's right."
Seizing the moment, Burstein hustled his daughter down a hatchway, out of the way of shot. He cursed the day he'd set out from Philadelphia to make his fortune in London with his skills as a mathematical instrument maker, for nothing good had come thus far: only Livvy Rose keeping company with that lumpish oaf of a ship's boy.
Boom! A distant gun fired, and on deck, the crew ducked as another shot came howling down and smashed into the hull. The boy looked astern as his captain yelled from the quarterdeck.
"There, sir!" cried Captain Nehemia Higgs, seizing hold of the man beside him, the ship's owner Mr Samuel Banbury, and shaking him angrily. "Now where's your
Banbury said nothing, but pulled free and, wrenching off his coat and shirt, ran forward to jam the crumpled linen deep into the fallen seaman's hideous injury in an effort to stem the flow of blood.
"Aaaaaaaah!" screeched the wounded man.
"And may I now - in God's name - turn to my guns?" yelled Captain Higgs.
"Aye!" roared the crew, nearly two dozen of them, angrily waiting for the order. Their captain might be a Quaker, but at least he was one of the
sort - unlike Mr Banbury, who was clearly one of the
sort. The crew, on the other hand, weren't no sort of Quakers at all - not them, by God and the Devil! And they weren't about to give up their wages at the mere sight of a black flag!
Ignoring them, Banbury tugged off his belt and managed to strap it round the wounded seaman's chest to hold the dripping red bundle in place. Looking around him for help, he spotted the boy.
"You!" cried Banbury. "Give me your shirt!"
So two shirts were clapped on the wound, with the boy close enough to be sprayed by the victim's spittle and drenched in his blood. But he could see it weren't no use. Soon the screaming stopped and the man's eyes closed. Tommy
Trimstone was his name; from Ilfracombe in Devon, and now dead.
The boy stood up from the corpse, wiping his hands on his breeches. He'd never seen death and didn't know what to make of it. He looked to his captain again, cussing and blinding as no Quaker should, and then finally raising a telescope to check on their pursuers, before calling to the boy.
"Come here, you young sod!" he cried. "Take this bastard glass and get into the bastard top, and keep watch on
bugger -" he pointed to the oncoming ship - "and be quick about it, or I'll skin the bleeding arse off you!" With all hands on deck, standing by to man his guns, Higgs needed a lookout.
The boy went up the shrouds at the run, and got himself nice and tight into the maintop. He levelled the glass…
"What d'you see?" yelled Captain Higgs.
The boy saw a sharp-keeled, rake-masted brig of some two hundred tons: deeply sparred, and with ports for twenty guns. The wind was weak so she was under all sail, and coming on only slowly, but her decks were black with armed men, which was not surprising for a vessel that flew the skull and bones.
Boom! Up went another cloud of white from the enemy's bow, followed swiftly by the deadly howl of shot heading their way. It shrieked high over the masts as the boy called down to the quarterdeck telling what he'd seen.
"You heard that," said Higgs to Banbury. "We must defend ourselves!"
"Can we not outrun them?" said Banbury. "You have
masts to their
Higgs sneered from the depth of his seaman's soul at this ludicrous dollop of landlubber's shite.
was a Bristol-built West Indiaman: well found, and fit in all respects
But she was designed for
not swiftness. In her
however, was the fact that she bore sixteen guns and
if it came to cannonading, she might well drive off a lighter vessel that was built purely for speed. Higgs yelled this thought at Banbury, but dared not act without his word.
Up in the top, the boy looked down, puzzled. Banbury and Higgs were Quakers that weren't supposed to fight. But the ship had guns, like other Quaker ships, so why not use them? The boy shook his head. He didn't know. He only knew that Banbury was a very special Quaker, come out from England to staunch the slave trade among the Pennsylvania Quakers, and now going home. Clearly Cap'n Higgs was afraid of Banbury. Perhaps it was like the Catholics with their pope?
Boom! Another shot from the pirate's bow-chaser. They were close enough now that the boy could see the men working the gun. Again the shot went wide, and he watched them haul in, sponge out and re-load. And then he had a nasty thought. For the first time it occurred to him - in his youth and innocence - that the pirates…
might actually capture the ship!
He groaned in fear of what they would do to Olivia Rose.
Plump and luscious with shining skin and titian hair, Livvy was the only female aboard. He blushed for the things the hands said about her, behind her back. What chance would she stand if such men as them - but worse - got hold of her?
Then another flag went up on the pirate brig: a plain, red flag. The boy didn't know what it meant, but his mates did, down below.
"Bugger me," said one, "it's the Jolly Roger!"
"Gawd 'elp us," said another.
"Higgs," demanded Banbury, "what's that red flag?"
said Higgs. "The 'Pretty Red One' of the French Buccaneers."
"What does it mean?"
"It means no quarter to those that fight," he said. "It's death to all aboard."
"But only if we fight?"
"Aye." Higgs scowled, for he knew this gave the game to Banbury.