An impenetrable black plume of smoke lifted from the center of Ranger’s deck into the clear morning sky. The pirate sloop had come to rest in a yawning inlet carved in the center of an island shaped like a horseshoe. The lake sat just beyond a long narrow channel that was flanked by treacherous rocky hills sloping in a steep, uneven V into the water. Apart from a white beach that lined the outer rim, and a few scattered coconut trees, the island was mostly barren rock.
James Lancaster surmised his wounded prey from the quarterdeck of HMS Advance, the tails of his standard issue blue coat flapping in the wind. He lifted his tricorn hat long enough to adjust the stubborn white wig beneath it, and then fitted the hat back in place. The curled locks were heavy with sweat, nudging his powdered cheeks every time he turned his head. The sun was particularly merciless today, especially for early February, and it was only three hours after dawn.
Lancaster had never developed a taste for the Caribbean. He had arrived a month after Woodes Rogers in order to aid him in putting an end to the pirate menace. He had been promised a tropical paradise, but no one had said anything of the relentless humidity. Port Nassau was gradually becoming more habitable, thanks to Rogers’ efforts in cleaning it up, but there was nothing the new governor could do for the stifling wet heat. Lancaster had originally intended on building an estate just outside of town and sending for his wife, Meredith, but now he just wanted to return to England. Meredith had lived in England all her life, and the Caribbean sun would not be kind to her pale skin. She was a delicate woman who had miscarried twice. Lancaster wasn’t even sure she would survive crossing the Atlantic, a stretch that tested even the most hardened sailors.
He glared at the sloop ahead, bobbing gently in the water, with smoke still pouring out of its center. He prayed this would be over swiftly. The sooner he had Charles Vane in custody, the sooner he could retreat to the shelter of his cabin. Vane was one of the last real pirate threats in the Caribbean, assuming Guy Dillahunt wasn’t lying about the death of Edward Teach. Lancaster wasn’t sure he trusted Dillahunt’s word. Dillahunt, reputed as a highly successful privateer, claimed that Teach had perished right in front of him, but he hadn’t returned any proof. Lancaster didn’t think Dillahunt a particularly civilized man. He was prone to queer behavior, and generally impossible to carry on a conversation with, as he would too often halt midsentence to fixate on an inconsequential detail. He was courting a frightfully young whore. Rumor had it he had taken her to sea with him, and that wasn’t the worst of it. He had the gall to bring her to a dinner hosted by Rogers, who was, for whatever reason, fond of Dillahunt. The girl had asked embarrassing questions of each of the captains, displaying an alarming fascination with violence. It was clear that Rogers’ wife, Sarah, didn’t care for the girl. Some of the men seemed charmed by her, though Lancaster attributed that to her fetching looks rather than her unrefined charisma.
Lancaster supposed he should allow Dillahunt the benefit of the doubt, given that Rogers trusted the man. Just like he trusted Benjamin Hornigold, he reminded himself. That friendship hadn’t ended well, with Hornigold running off to pursue phantom treasure, and discovering his death instead. Employing former pirates to hunt down their own kind never sat well with Lancaster, but he was no one to question the king’s wisdom.
Lancaster’s first mate, Aaron Roberts, approached with his hands locked behind his back. As always, Roberts was a picture of propriety, with one eyebrow elevated above the other, a lofty nose aimed skyward, and neatly pursed lips that rarely surrendered a smile. He was several years older than Lancaster, and his real hair was starting to match the color of his wig. “Captain, I’m not convinced we can slip through that gap.”
Roberts indicated a spot ahead where the rocky walls flanking the estuary slimmed like the midsection of an hourglass. Ranger sat in the wide oval of water just beyond that gap. Lancaster shrugged. “We approach handsomely.”
“Our hull is broader than Ranger’s,” Roberts reminded him. Ranger was a sloop, and HMS Advance was a fifth-rate warship with forty guns. She was small compared to the large ships of the line, but she was fast, maneuverable, and armed well enough to frighten her prey.
Lancaster allowed himself a smile. “I’m willing to risk a few scrapes on the hull to catch that man. Mr. Arrow and Mr. Daveys heave the lead as we speak. I doubt men as diligent as they will see us run aground without a word of warning.” Two leadsmen stood on channels on either side of the ship, swinging ropes with lead plummets at the end, gauging the depth of the channel.
Roberts turned to the helmsman. “Mind your rudder, Mr. Parish.”
“Aye, sir,” Parish stiffly replied, knuckles white as he gripped the helm.
Above decks and below, gunners stood at their posts, ready for battle.
Roberts moved close to Lancaster and spoke low. “Captain, we can’t even be certain Vane is aboard.”
“Where else would he go?” Lancaster asked, sweeping his arm to indicate the barren slopes on either side. The rocky hills were ascending as Advance delved further in, and the highest ridge on the starboard side would soon be higher than the mainmast. The early sun in the east would be blocked from their view, and Lancaster was looking forward to the shade’s relief. “There is nowhere to hide.”
Roberts considered that with a pinched brow. “It’s possible he’s leading us into some sort of diversion. These pirates are desperate types, after all. A certain mad ingenuity occasionally arises of desperation.”
Lancaster stared at starboard ridge, angling his hat upward. For an instant, he thought he saw a shadow atop the ridge. He squinted, but he saw nothing more. He chuckled lightly, brushing off the odd feeling. “There’s nothing clever about Vane’s actions. He runs like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs.”
“It’s strange,” Roberts persisted, adjusting the frill of one of his sleeves. “His sloop is much faster, yet he went out of his way to broadside us before retreating.”
Indeed it was strange, given that Advance’s return fire had all but devastated Ranger, forcing her to limp away to the sanctuary of this little island. “It is my understanding that Charles Vane is a bold man,” Lancaster said. “He is not, however, counted as particularly wise.”
Lancaster recalled the story Woodes Rogers had told him about Vane burning a ship in the harbor upon Rogers’ arrival in Nassau. Despite that rebellious display, Vane had been forced to flee, just like any other common pirate. When it came to authority, pirates were all bark and no bite.
“There’s nowhere left to run now,” Lancaster assured his first mate. After he delivered Vane into Governor Rogers’ hands, perhaps the governor would grant Lancaster’s request to return home. There would be no better time to ask.
Roberts nodded uncertainly. “Aye, Captain.”
The first mate didn’t sound convinced, but Lancaster didn’t care. Roberts would see for himself soon enough.
Sure enough, Advance easily made the gap. Lancaster smirked confidently. There was at least twenty feet of space on either side at the narrowest point. It was close, but the hills were steep enough that they plunged much deeper into the water than the ship’s hull. Roberts inclined his head. “Apologies, captain.”
“None required, my friend,” Lancaster replied with a hand on Roberts’ shoulder. “It was guesswork on both our parts, and there was half a chance I’d be apologizing to you right now.” Roberts’ keen advice had benefited Lancaster more than once. It was good to have a man like him onboard, even if he was a tad overcautious. They had served together for five years, and survived many battles. Lancaster would be sure to invite Roberts to his cabin for a celebratory dinner tonight, where they would toast the end of piracy and contemplate their futures. He knew Roberts would happily follow him back to England, but he would give the man a choice nonetheless.
Lancaster frowned down at the main deck. The crew was gathering at the bulwark, staring upward. Master Stevenson was pointing starboard. “On the ridge, captain!” he shouted. “Men on the ridge!”
Lancaster’s eyes scaled the close, sloping hill on the starboard side, all the way to the ridge above the ship’s highest mast. Nearly three dozen pirates were silhouetted up there, moving fast. Some of them were crouching, nudging the ground with sticks.
No, not sticks, Lancaster realized in horror. Torches. A thin trail of fire spread along the ridge.
“Oh my God,” said Roberts. “Explosives.”
“Rifles!” Lancaster cried, but it was too late.
The slope erupted in a tremendous fireball that was five times as large as Advance. Bits of rock and dust billowed into the air in a giant brown cloud that blotted out the sun. The slope rumbled violently, dark fissures split the surface, and massive chunks of hillside shook free. A long slab of rock, the size of a longboat, tumbled down the hill and impacted the water, sending a rolling wave against Advance’s hull, rocking her. The slab started to sink as huge boulders piled on top of it, nudging it toward Advance.
Lancaster turned around and saw more shadows appearing on the opposite ridge, and several of them had torches. “Riflemen,” he called, pointing at the other ridge. “Don’t let them light—”
The port slope exploded. The fireball wasn’t quite as large as the first, but it was enough. Huge chunks of the hillside crumbled toward the water. Boulders bounced down, cutting through the dust.
Lancaster looked from one slope to the next in disbelief. The hills on both sides were crumbling toward Advance. Rocks piled up in the water, coming closer and closer to the hull. An impossibly large boulder impacted the mounting rubble on the starboard side, and it kept rolling. It smashed into the hull, shuddering the ship and nudging her closer to the opposite slope. And then another boulder hit from the opposite slope. The ship rocked violently, throwing Roberts off his feet. His wig flew from his head. Thick clouds of dust swept over the deck from either side.
Half of the crew rushed to the starboard bulwark while the other half fell to the port bulwark, crouching low. Many of them aimed long rifles. Shots cracked off the close walls. Three shadowy figures went tumbling down the starboard slope. Two of them were caught on outcroppings, but the third rolled all the way into the water, disappearing somewhere below Advance’s hull.
On the port side, another boulder was projected into the air from a curved ledge, sailing toward Advance. It touched down near the port bow, splintering the deck and propelling a man skyward. He hit the foremast like a ragdoll, back bending the wrong way, and tumbled to the deck.
More rubble hit the port side. The leadsman on that side was suddenly pitched over the side. He slid along the hull and landed feet-first on the rocks that had collected below. His legs buckled on impact and he fell flat on his stomach. A huge boulder came rolling over the rubble just then, splattering the leadsman’s torso like a bug under a boot.
The last boulder collected in the rubble, the hull groaned a mournful protest, and the ship was firmly wedged in place. Lancaster looked to the lake ahead, just beyond the gap, where Ranger taunted him, just out of reach. “This can’t be happening,” he muttered.
Gunshots cracked from above. Pirates bellowed battle cries as they zigzagged down the diminished hillsides, vanishing into the lingering clouds of dust.
“Fire cannons!” Lancaster instructed.
Advance unleashed a volley of cannonballs at both slopes. Each impact was thunderous, kicking up even more dust, spotted by an occasional spray of red as a man was perforated by a cannonball.
“We’re aiding their attack,” Roberts said as he got to his feet, sweeping a hand over his matted silver hair. “Can’t see where they—”
A bullet zipped past Lancaster’s cheek. “That was close,” he gasped. “Roberts?”
Roberts didn’t answer. Lancaster turned and saw the reason why. A stream of blood ran down Roberts’ open mouth, dribbling off of his chin and collecting on his chest. His eyes rolled up in their sockets, until they were nothing but white. As the first mate collapsed, Lancaster glimpsed a gaping hole in the back of his mouth, shining right through his skull. The back of his head landed atop his wig, darkening it instantly.
Lancaster turned to the main deck. “Hold fire! HOLD FIRE!”
Gunshots and cannon blasts gradually petered out, except from the enemy. Most of the crew looked at Lancaster questioningly. “Wait until they emerge from the dust,” he said, “and then open fire!”
The men did as commanded, waiting patiently despite the enemy bullets shooting from the dust. Six men were hit. Three of them were killed instantly, while the other three moaned and clutched their wounds. They were each dragged away from the bulwark, and the doctor, Patrick Gilkerson, went to work on the first man.
“Hold!” Lancaster urged, sensing the crew’s eagerness to fire. If one man pulled the trigger, they all would.
After a moment, he realized the gunshots from the dust had ceased. There was a long silence that was somehow worse than gunfire. “What are they doing?” he asked Roberts, and then he remembered the corpse a few feet behind him. He refused to look. He would mourn his friend later.
A three-pronged grapple flew out of the dust, sailing toward the mainmast, with a thick rope trailing behind it. It hooked onto a yardarm, clawing the wood. Two dozen more grapples followed. Pirates swung out of the dust toward the main deck.
“FIRE!” Lancaster ordered.
The crew opened fire. Several pirates crashed to the deck, others fell before they reached the ship, their bones cracking on the rubble below, leaving smears of blood as they slid into the cracks between the rocks.
A pirate came swinging through the haze toward Lancaster. Lancaster drew his pistol and fired into the man’s chest, dropping him from the rope. The pirate’s back hit the port rail of the quarterdeck with a sickening snap, and he glanced off and spiraled into the water below. Lancaster tossed the smoking pistol aside and unsheathed a polished small sword, descending the stairs to the main deck. It was a dress sword given to him by his late commodore father, who had been presented the weapon along with his commission. At fifty, Lancaster’s father had unexpectedly taken ill and died in his sleep. Lancaster was beginning to suspect he would not be afforded the same luxury.
Several more grapples took hold of the yardarms and ratlines. Too many pirates were getting through, dropping to the deck and engaging Lancaster’s crew with pistols and cutlasses. They were also scaling the hull. Some of them met with a bullet or sword to the face the instant they peeked their heads over the rails.
It wasn’t enough.
Lancaster joined his men on the main deck. He did not believe in letting a crew fight for their lives while their captain was safely removed from battle. Gilkerson had often berated him for that while tending to his wounds after a fight. “I should have served on a ship with a captain sensible enough to stay out of the path of a sword,” the doctor would gripe. “What good is a ship without its leader?” Lancaster prayed his men would never have to find out the answer to that question, but his presence was a boon to their resolve, so it was a risk he was willing to take.
His sword pierced the shoulder blades of a pirate who had left his flank unguarded. Lancaster wrapped a muscular arm around his victim’s neck and yanked him into the blade, until the man’s back hit the hilt, and then he kicked him away. The pirate crumpled to his knees, managed a stunned glance over his shoulder at Lancaster, and then fell on his face.
Lancaster moved to the next. The pirates were everywhere now, and there were already too many corpses to count, on both sides. However, a quick glance was enough to tell him that Advance was losing. More pirates kept swinging onto the deck and climbing over the bulwark, as if their numbers were endless.
Gilkerson was seeing to a man’s wounds when a pirate grabbed a handful of the doctor’s hair, drew his head back and sliced his neck, spilling his blood all over the man he’d been attending.
Lancaster looked to the starboard slope and saw another horde of men charging down it through the thinning dust, swords pointed at the ship. A smaller group was charging down the opposite slope.
Rollins, the master at arms, stepped beside Lancaster, his gaunt face as white as the sails above. He had a perpetually grim expression that was somehow a shade grimmer than usual. “This is impossible,” he said as he stared at the men flooding toward the ship like a river unleashed from a ruptured dam.
“Evidently not,” Lancaster replied through clenched teeth.
“What do we do, captain?”
Lancaster stared at him. “We fight to the very last. I will not see this ship fall into the hands of Charles Vane, is that understood?”
Rollins nodded and returned to battle, thrusting his sword into the nearest pirate’s throat. “You heard the captain, men!” he yelled. “No quarter!”
Lancaster saw a particularly large pirate struggling to get over the starboard bulwark, near the bow. The captain rushed forward and brought his blade down on the man’s knuckles. The large pirate shrieked and involuntarily relinquished his grip, falling onto the pirate below him. They both plummeted into the water. A few bloody fingers remained on the rail.
Lancaster kneeled beside the corpse of a dead deckhand and retrieved his gun, which hadn’t been fired. He returned to the bulwark, curling over and aiming down at the next ascending pirate. He pulled the trigger, the pirate’s right eye disintegrated into a dark hole, and his brains exploded from the back of his skull in a red mist. A hand shot up from the left, grasping Lancaster’s wrist. He saw an evil dark face beneath a red bandana. The pirate must have been flattening himself against the hull, hidden in shadow. Lancaster flipped the discharged pistol over, letting the hot barrel slap into his palm, and beat the man repeatedly over the head with the pommel, until his skull caved in. The evil face went strangely innocent and childlike, and the man fell to the water. Lancaster tossed the gun over the side.
He returned his attention to the main deck. His heart sank. There were far more corpses and wounded men than just a few moments ago. Those that stood were difficult to see through the pirates that swarmed around them. Lancaster couldn’t believe this was happening. They had lost in but a few minutes.
This is the last mistake I’ll ever make, Lancaster realized grimly.
He found Rollins near the mainmast, engaged in a duel with a much taller pirate. Rollins finished his combatant off by swiping his blade across the man’s knees. The pirate collapsed, and Rollins sank his blade into his skull. When the master at arms turned to greet Lancaster, his face was doused in blood. “Captain,” he greeted.
“We’re not done,” Lancaster said.
Rollins shrugged. “I didn’t say we were.”
“The powder magazine,” Lancaster said, setting a hand on Rollins’ shoulder. “I want you to ignite the powder magazine. We’ll take all of these bastards with us.”
Rollins ran his arm over his mouth, smearing the blood. He sniffed and nodded. “Aye, captain.” Without another word, Rollins made for the hold.
Lancaster didn’t pause to watch him go. He joined the dozen or so of his crew that were still standing. “To the very last!” he reminded them. They nodded, all proud to die beside their captain.
They formed a circle as the pirates swept in around them. The clash of steel was deafening. Ten pirates died before the enemy tried a new tactic. A stout pirate with a yellow and black striped bandana threw a granado. “Move!” Lancaster shouted, and the circle was broken. The deck ruptured where they had been standing, splinters raining down. Two of Lancaster’s crew fell dead instantly, with bits of wood lodged in vital areas. Lancaster got to his feet and scanned the advancing pirates until he glimpsed yellow. He lunged for the man, thrusting his sword. Two pirates leapt out of the way, and the tip of the blade found its target. The man with the yellow bandana fell to his knees, clutching the blade, his bright red face twisted in agony.
Before Lancaster could find his next target, a sharp pain pinched his abdomen. He glanced down to see a blade wedged in his right side, just beneath his ribs. The pirate who held it was older, with grey hair and a surprisingly distinguished face. He almost looked apologetic, even as he twisted the hilt.
The pain buckled Lancaster’s knees. The older pirate eased the blade free, placing a heel on Lancaster’s back and shoving him onto his belly.
“That’s it, then!” whooped a very young pirate with mussed hair that was painted blue, yellow, and red. “We done it! We caught ourselves a frigate!”
“Shuttup, Keet,” growled the older pirate as he wiped Lancaster’s blood from his blade with a soiled handkerchief.
Lancaster kept his head down and waited. Any minute now, they’d all be in for an explosive surprise. He couldn’t help but chuckle, despite the pain shearing through his torso. The wound was fatal, he knew. He’d been wounded many times, but none had ever felt like this. It was difficult to keep his eyes open. His fingers tingled, his lips felt numb, his head light and distant. He was losing too much blood.
“What’s so funny, captain?” wondered the old man who had felled him.
“He thinks he knows something we don’t,” said an authoritatively powerful voice, tinged with a mocking flourish. “But I, too, know something, Captain.”
A boot slipped under Lancaster’s belly and rolled him onto his back. He cried out, clutching his ribs. He hacked violently, and a gooey blob ejected into his mouth, tasting of rusty metal . . . or what he thought rusty metal would taste like.
“Did this go as you imagined it would, captain?” said the amused, imposing voice.
Lancaster squinted as the sun peeked over the eastern ridge. The thinning dust swirled around a tall man with curly auburn-tinted hair. He was illuminated by the sun on one side, shadowed on the other. His strong jaw was shrouded in stubble, his mouth tilted in a smirk. His eyes gleamed of an impossibly vibrant emerald. He wore a long forest green coat with buttons that glinted gold.
“Vane,” Lancaster wheezed.
Vane’s smirk widened. “I see I require no introduction. I’m deeply flattered.” He frowned. “I’m afraid I haven’t the murkiest fuck of a notion whom you might be.”
“Captain James Lancaster, his majesty’s royal navy.”
Vane scoffed. “His majesty’s royal arsehole, more like.”
Lancaster spat blood, but it didn’t go very far, arcing off only two feet in the air and splattering the deck. A pirate moved his foot before it could touch his toes. “I am only the first of many.”
Vane made a show of false fear, clutching his breast. “I tremble.”
“You will in but a moment,” Lancaster promised. He felt the life seeping out of the hole in his side, but he knew he had just long enough to feel the heat beneath him before it consumed the deck. He would savor Vane’s final surprised expression, even as the flames claimed them both.
For some reason, Vane was laughing. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, captain. I wouldn’t want you making a mockery of yourself so near the close of your life.” He snapped his fingers at one of his men. “Bring me that.”
One of Vane’s crew stepped forward, blocking the sun, and handed something the size of a large cannonball to Vane. It was difficult to make out the details with the sun just beyond it. Vane shook the round object, and fluids oozed from it in thin tendrils, splashing the deck. Vane kneeled beside Lancaster and brought the object into view.
The gaunt face was instantly familiar, though Lancaster had never seen it so contorted. Rollins’ jaw was hanging open, twisted to one side. His bloodshot eyes were raised to the sky. Blood dribbled out of his nose and ears. Strands of muscle and skin and a few notches of severed spine dangled from the garbled wet mess underneath.
Vane shook his head sadly. “When you want something done,” he said suggestively, and tossed the head aside. Lancaster didn’t see where it landed, but he heard it thumping across the deck, until it hit the bulwark with asquelch. Some of Vane’s men laughed.
Lancaster let his head fall back. “You’re every bit the monster they say you are.”
Vane’s smirk faded only for an instant, and a disturbing sincerity crept into his eyes. “You should have listened to them before you followed me blindly into this channel. I’ve been waiting a long time for a fly to fall into this trap. I must say, you’re a bold man, captain. Foolish, but bold. I thought you’d send in longboats, but you sailed in with your entire ship.” His delighted giggle would have suited a ten year old boy. “This went better than I could have imagined.”
“Your luck will run out,” Lancaster promised.
“Eventually,” Vane replied carelessly. “Pity you won’t live to see it.”
“Get on with it, then,” Lancaster said.
“Oh, I’ll happily end your suffering in a moment,” Vane assured him. He leaned closer, setting a hand on Lancaster’s chest and pressing down. It took everything Lancaster had left not to shriek. “But first,” Vane said, “you must answer a simple question.”
Lancaster cackled bitterly through his teeth. “I will not compromise my station to spare myself a few scant moments of agony.”
“I think you will, captain,” Vane persisted. He slid a hand around the back of Lancaster’s head, drawing him closer, as a lover would. He whispered his next words softly into Lancaster’s ear. “You’ve more life in you than you give yourself credit for. I think we can give you another hour or two, with proper attention. My surgeon is highly skilled. He knows how to keep a dying man alive. Your fingers, on the other hand, aren’t vital organs. Or your toes. Or your balls.”
“Do what you will,” Lancaster growled.
“Fetch the clippers,” Vane called over his shoulder to the man with painted hair. “Hollander’s got my tools.”
Keet started off, then halted and turned slowly, scratching his chin. “Which ones, captain?”
Vane withered. “The ones that cut through bone, preferably.”
Lancaster squirmed beneath Vane’s hand. “Cut away,” he said. It didn’t matter what Vane did to him now, nothing would stop him from dying. Even if he did survive another hour, there was only so much pain a man could withstand before he went into shock.
“You haven’t even heard the question yet,” Vane said. “It’s an easy one. It doesn’t even concern you, really. All you have to do is tell me where I might find Katherine Lindsay.”
The name was familiar, but Lancaster couldn’t place it.
“A redhead with a rather large reward on her head,” Vane offered helpfully, rolling his finger in a progressive motion. “Dillahunt brought her in, last I heard. I imagine she’s rather furious about that. Tell me, was she shipped off to England?”
Lancaster remembered the woman now. He met her only once, but her fire hair was impossible to forget. She had somehow survived being kidnapped by Jonathan Griffith and an encounter with Blackbeard . . . the very same encounter that Dillahunt claimed had ended with Blackbeard’s demise. Rogers had been keeping Lindsay safely tucked away in his mansion, waiting for her dead husband’s family to arrive and provide Dillahunt with a lofty reward before returning her to London. But Lancaster didn’t see how that could be of any interest to Vane. “What could you possibly want with her?” He choked on the question, hacking another thick glob of blood into his mouth.
Vane smiled courteously, lightly patting Lancaster’s chest. “That’s the part that doesn’t concern you.”
Excerpt from THE DEVIL’S HORIZON
by Matt Tomerlin.
Copyright © 2012 by Matt Tomerlin. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.