The Mosquito Coast, 1664
Nick frowned. Something was missing from the pile of plunder.
“There was a ring,” he told the captain. “Took it from the old gent. Purple stone.”
“I remember,” said Captain Ashburn. He turned to the crew. “Men, we have a thief aboard.”
The crew of the buccaneer ship Night Hawk looked around uneasily at each other. Their haul from the Spanish merchant ship had been lean—barrels and barrels of cacao that were hardly worth the trouble of transporting them, a single barrel of dry black sticks the captain had told them was vanilla. At most, they would score two hundred pieces of eight for the lot, and that would not go far amongst their crew of seventy-three men. A few purses from the passengers and some trumpery jewels made up the rest of the haul. Taking a piece that would certainly be missed in such a slender pile was a risk, and a foolish one at that.
Nick wondered who it could be. So many of their crew were new to him. A bout of the fever had ripped through the settlement at St Catherine’s, killing half the locals and a score of Night Hawk’s crew. Another dozen of their men still languished on the island, too weak to rove. The captain had taken on every new man he could get, and few of them were seasoned Brethren.
“He took it,” said Strawberry, pointing at Swamp Dog.
Nick’s gaze fell on the homely face, scarce improved by the eye-patch that covered his missing eye. Swamp Dog had spun a tale of fleeing from Port Royal after some gent had stabbed him in the face and another had poisoned his mate, which Nick only half believed. It was solely their desperate need for crew that had moved the captain to take on a man who was little better than a land-rat.
And he had proven to be naught but trouble since he had arrived: causing fights, sleeping on his watch, smoking below decks and putting the ship at risk of fire. And Nick recalled that incident with Minette, one of the strumpets at the Jambes de la Joie. Swamp Dog was not the only buccaneer to indulge in such cruelty, but they usually saved it for captives of little value, not women in the ports they traded with.
“Did you see him take it, Strawberry?” asked the captain.
“I seen him crouching over the chest. Reckon he shoved it in his pocket then.”
“You lying little shit-sack!”
Swamp Dog shot to his feet, his fists clenched, but Nick and another crewman grabbed his arms, restraining him. Despite his youth—at barely fifteen, Strawberry was the youngest of the buccaneers—he was considered a man aboard ship. But the crew was most protective of him, and Nick was no exception.
“I’m being persecuted acos I’m new,” said Swamp Dog, scowling. “Go ahead; search my traps. You’ll not find naught.”
“Certes we’ll find naught,” said Captain Ashburn in a silky voice. “I’ll wager the ring is in a clever hiding place.”
He strolled over to Swamp Dog, looking up into his face. The captain was not a tall man, but he was possessed of a charisma that made one overlook the physical. Nick had always fancied he had an aura about him, a bit like an angel. His fair hair was the colour of New World gold, his skin tanned to a golden hue, and he had as handsome a face as any man had a right to.
Swamp Dog flinched when the captain reached up. Lifting the patch that covered the hollow where the man’s right eye had once been, the captain gave a feral smile.
“Why, Swamp Dog, such a lovely eye you have. A great pity to hide it away.” He reached into the socket and plucked out a gold ring, set with an amethyst the size of a man’s thumbnail.
A low growl sounded from the throats of the crew, and they began to shout.
“Hang the filthy cogger from the yardarm in irons. Let the birds pike out t’other eye.”
“Tie him to a rope and duck him ’til he drowns.”
“Give him to the Caribs to roast and eat.”
“Nay, men!” Without raising his voice to any vulgar level, the captain made himself heard over the angry yells. “We are Brethren of the Coast, not a rabble of peasants. We use the penalty as stated in the chasse-partie. All voted on it and signed it, and it is our law for this voyage.”
“What, we maroon him?” said one of the men disparagingly. “Seems too light a punishment to me.”
“That does rather depend on where we maroon him,” said Captain Ashburn with a pleasant smile. “I was thinking about that lovely little island over there.”
Nick followed the captain’s pointing finger and shuddered. Off their starboard beam was a low sandbar exposed by the ebbing tide, and by nightfall, it would be half a fathom underwater. Of course, Swamp Dog would not drown at that depth, but the waters here were infested with sharks. If he survived high tide, the sandbar had no source of fresh water, and it was miles from any land that did. If a ship happened upon him before he died of thirst, her crew would either leave him stranded, knowing he was a maroon, or it would be the Spanish, and they would take him to their mines to live out the rest of his miserable life as a slave.
In short, Swamp Dog’s future was not a happy one.
“Prithee, no, not that,” wailed the thief.
Jacob, who held his other arm, punched him in the face, knocking him out cold. Nick staggered a little as Swamp Dog sagged, and shifted his grip to hold the limp body upright.
“Sorry, Nick,” said Jacob. “Can’t abide whining. Let’s dump the thieving coward, Captain, and get the hell back to St Catherine’s with our loot afore any Dons come.”
It was a reasonable fear—the merchant ship they attacked had had no escort, but that did not mean a ship of the guardacosta would not happen by. And it, unlike the merchant ship, would be heavily armed and laden with soldiers.
And so the unconscious Swamp Dog was rowed out to the sandbar. He was starting to come to as they hauled him from the longboat. Nick dropped a glass onion bottle filled with water on the sand beside him. The captain tossed him a pistol with a single shot loaded in it.
“You have a choice,” he said dispassionately. “Shoot yourself and condemn your soul, or be eaten by sharks like a good Christian.”
“Prithee, Captain!” The thief was on his knees, his hands clasped together beseechingly. “I swear I won’t do it again—have mercy on me!”
“Pray to God for mercy, not to me,” said Captain Ashburn coldly. He signalled to the men and they pushed out from the sandbar.
“Should have wapped him again afore we left,” grumbled Jacob as the pleas increased to a strident volume.
“What, and have him miss the pleasure of watching us—and all hope—depart? And those new men we’ve taken on—they’ll not soon forget his screeching, and the penalty for betraying one’s brothers. The customs of the coast are the cornerstone of our existence, and now they will see we do not take them lightly.”
The captain’s face was indifferent as he made this little speech, and Nick was glad he took no pleasure in their actions. However cruel it seemed, discipline must be maintained or they would descend into chaos.
Back aboard Night Hawk, the captain gave the order to crowd on canvas and get them under weigh. Passing Nick, he clapped him on the shoulder.
“Don’t feel guilt that it was your actions that unmasked our thief,” he said.
How had the captain guessed?
“It leaves a bad taste,” Nick admitted. “Whatever else he was, he was one of us. I suppose that makes me soft,” he added self-deprecatingly.
“Nay, your feelings do you credit,” said the captain. “One should never lightly take the life of a brother, however unworthy he turns out to be.”
With another buffet to Nick’s shoulder, the captain bounded down the companionway to the helm on the main deck.
Nick stood at the tafferel, looking aft, watching the little islet until it disappeared from view. The last he saw of Swamp Dog, the man was still on his knees, begging for mercy.