Available from Samhain Publishing
© 2008 by Kimberly Nee
West Indies, 1680
Finn jumped as the door slammed shut and hissed sharply as she tugged harder than she'd intended and the bandage bit into her chafed skin. Pulling her shirt down, she darted around the open wardrobe door. "Aye, Captain?"
Antoine Beauregard's eyes narrowed even as he swayed back and forth, reaching for the wall to steady himself. "Go topside. There's a ship bearin' down and refusin' to run up her colors. Get your arse up there and help Jackie."
"Aye, Captain." She wanted to reach out and steady Beauregard, but it would be pointless. She almost saw the rum fumes radiating from him. "The cannon, sir? Is that where he is?"
Beauregard let out a roar of laughter, shrugging out of his dingy red coat and letting it fall in a heap at his feet. "Aye, ye dumb jackass. The cannon, o' course! Where else would I send ye? Ye don't truly think I'd want to see ye wi' steel in yer clumsy hands, do ye?" He stomped across the cabin, trying to walk in a straight line, but failing miserably. He staggered first to the right, to his left twice over, and finally reached his destination. Dropping into his favorite chair, he groaned and sighed at the same time, his ratty, graying beard rippling as he growled, "We're almost to Port Royal. It's time for ye to prove yer mettle, boy. Lest, of course, ye wish me to find another to take me place when I retire?"
She moved away from him, in case he decided to cuff her, as was his wont. Scurrying to the door, she crouched, swiping his coat from the floor and rising to shake it out. Turning back to drape it over the other chair, she looked up to see Beauregard tug his flask from his belt and bring it to his mouth. "No, sir. I mean, aye, sir. I will show her what she faces."
Beauregard took a long swallow and lowered the flask. The grizzled iron-gray hair hiding his mouth split to reveal a yellow-toothed grin, and he heaved himself forward to clap Finn on the back hard enough to practically lift her from her feet. "There's a good lad. Now get! Let's see if yer worth yer weight, boy! Prove yer usefulness!"
Finn fought to hold her tongue as Beauregard's chin fell into his rain-barrel chest. He never failed to remind her of her place, never missed an opportunity to take a jab at her, demanding she prove her worth. It was sport for him, especially when he was drunk—which was most of the time. She could count the number of times she'd seen him sober on both hands, not that she'd complain. It made hiding the fact that she was a woman and not some stripling lad much simpler. The bargain she'd struck with him was well worth tolerating his petty insults. One day soon the Smiling Jack would be hers and she had no desire to muck it up.
"Aye, Captain." She bobbed her head as he began to snore loudly. Beauregard slept the sleep of the dead. His flask toppled onto its side at his feet, the remaining dark gold rum dripping from its neck.
Sighing with disgust, she waved him off, forgetting about him entirely as she sunk to her knees before his wardrobe and thrust her hand under the delicate arch at its bottom, reaching into the darkness beneath it. It took a moment of blind groping, but then her fingers brushed cool steel and she smiled, angling the cutlass to slide it free from its keeping place. The baldric cradling the blade was battered, but the leather was intact and she wasted no time in dropping it over her head and shifting it to hide beneath her voluminous black canvas coat.
Certain she was prepared to jump into the battle, she didn't even glance back over her shoulder, but dashed through the door and into the corridor. She would not go aid Jackie. In fact, she didn't care if the lazy sot was blasted to bits. No, she was going topside and damn anyone who thought to stop her.
She was no more than ten paces from the cabin when it seemed as though a giant had grabbed hold of the ship in its fist and gave it a thunderous shake. The Smiling Jack rattled to her timbers, lurching to port and sending Finn slamming into the wall as she hurried down the cool, shadowy corridor. She quickly regained her balance, righting herself as she mounted the steps.
Dust filtered down through the boards overhead with the thundering rattle of pounding feet. Men ran along the length of the deck, hollering back and forth as they hurried from one area to another. She sneezed, dragging the back of her hand over her sweat-dampened upper lip as she sniffed. "What the devil—?"
Who on earth would be firing on them? Beauregard said naught about having fired any shots. After all, the Smiling Jack and her lazy captain didn't often engage in battle. Especially as Beauregard was considered something of a fool by the other men who roamed the Caribbean. The Smiling Jack carried almost nothing of value, even to the most desperate of pirates. Who would bother waging battle with them?
"Beauregard would be offering a great service if he drank himself to death," she muttered, taking the remaining stairs two at a time to burst out into the brilliant sunshine and warm, velvety sea air. It was a perfect day to be at sea, if someone wasn't heaving shot in their direction.
That someone was clearly visible—a looming ketch with billowing white sails. Fire erupted below her main deck as more guns fired in their direction.
"Damnation!" She stared in horror at the devastation already wrought upon the Smiling Jack. The foremast had been split mid-shaft, crashing down to pin three men beneath it. Wood shards, iron clamps and blood now stained the deck's surface. Tattered strips of canvas—once a whole, mottled gray sail—snapped wildly in the wind.
Her gaze fell on a tall redhead with a glowing, sunburned nose. "Ennis!" she shouted, forcing her voice into the deeper timbre she'd adopted since coming aboard ship. "Who fires on us?"
Ennis hurried toward her, his expression a mix of concern and irritation. "We don't know, but what the devil are you doing up here?" He pulled up short beside her. "Where is Beauregard? Does he know you're here? He was ranting about you giving Jackie a hand down below."
She rolled her eyes. "Never you mind about Beauregard. To the devil with him. We don't need that sot's help to defend ourselves." Despite the bravado she forced into her words, she couldn't ignore the flutter of fear unfurling in her belly. It was the first time she'd ever faced the prospect of battle, as they were seldom approached. Very few captains troubled themselves with the Smiling Jack.
"That drunken fool!" he shouted over the growling blast of the guns. "You ought have hidden his blasted bottle! Rum muscle. I might have known!"
Ignoring her churning belly, she managed to scowl. "It isn't possible, keeping that man from a bottle, Ennis. I'd swear he has rum flowing in his veins." She squinted again at the ketch, closer now, and swarming with sailors. Her throat went dry. "Who started this?"
"Bloody fool thought it'd be wildly amusin', heavin' shot in their direction. Ask me, he didn't know they'd return fire!" Ennis jabbed a forefinger off the port side of the Smiling Jack. "They didn't give a warnin' or nothin'. Jus' opened fire!"
"And he calls me a blooming jackass," she retorted, wishing she had thought to swipe Beauregard's spyglass before leaving the cabin. "Can you tell what they're heavin' at us?"
Ennis looked more disgusted than concerned as he shrugged almost lazily. "I don't bloomin' know, Finn! I can't tell one blasted shot from another. All I can tell is they took out the foremast with one blow."
Around them, the Smiling Jack's crew, nearly thirty in total, ran this way and that. It was difficult to tell if they were preparing themselves to meet their attackers man to man, or if they were scurrying to save their skins. Black plumes of smoke rose in thick columns from the destroyed foremast, and a bloodcurdling scream erupted from somewhere within the cloud.
The deck lurched beneath her. Screaming like a madman, Johnny smacked into her, and then bounced off, smearing her tunic with scarlet blood. He clutched his left wrist in his right hand, shrieking in almost inhuman tones as he spun wildly around her, and disappeared back into the smoke plume. His screams died away, and her stomach twisted violently when she saw what had caused his maniacal screaming—a severed hand lay in a pool of blood beyond the smoke column.
A sickly-sweet taste flooded her mouth and her vision swam as her knees threatened to betray her. Ennis reached to steady her. "Finn?"
Before she could answer, there came another boom and a flash of fire from the side of their attacker. The ship was closer now—close enough for her to actually make out the faces of the men on her decks. Her nausea was replaced by horror. "They're going to board us!"