The low Caribbean sun washed the tropical beach with bright hues of orange and long shadows of dark purple. Jacob squinted at the setting orb with his one eye, only partially distracted from his immediate pain by the patterns of crimson red clouds scraped across the horizon. He winced, sucking air through his mismatched gold and ivory teeth, and turned sharply to the girl who dressed his wound. “Careful!”
She met his painful glare with an equal look of admonishment, “Well if you’re going to move every time I pull it tight, you can take your chances with nature. How does that sound?”
“At least nature won’t prod me– ouch!”
She made the last stitch, deftly tying it as well as any sailor, and slapped him on the lower wrist for good measure.
Grudgingly he looked over her handiwork – a neat set of lines from his elbow to upper triceps. The wound from the machete had been clean enough, but he cursed his clumsiness. A few years ago – and with both eyes in his skull – an untrained merchant sailor would never have slipped through his guard.
“I believe the words you are looking for are thank you.” Molly stood from beside him, cutting the thread with a sail knife, then strode to a driftwood log on the other side of the crackling fire.
“Huh,” he grunted, “you’re as bad as a sawbones.”
“Not so!” A gruff voice replied.
Jacob turned to Roy – their cook. The squat red-haired man offered Jacob a crooked grin, and bent down to tap his notched wooden leg. “Ain’t never seen no sawbones as bonnie as Miss O’Failin here, ain’t that right lass? You can stitch me up any time you like!”
Molly looked as though she would blush, but she looked back at Jacob instead, gave him a stern look, and stuck out her tongue. “At least someone around here appreciates my talents.”
Jacob laughed suddenly. “From what I hear, there are lots of people around here who appreciate your talents – too many gauging the rumours...”
She glowered at his words. It had been a low blow, and he knew it. Molly’s way of pleasing those with money had kept them all fed on more than one occasion.
“Ignore him,” Roy waved a hand missing several digits, “he’s just jealous.”
Jacob sneered, idly rubbing a hand through his long tendrils of greasy blonde hair.
Molly still stared. “Next time Jacob, I reckon I’ll let you bleed.” She stood from the driftwood, gathered her belongings, and set off across the beach for the tree line.
“Peace at last,” Jacob grinned – a poor attempt at convincing himself that he was amused. Roy didn’t reply. The older one-legged man was gutting a fish on a flat stone, and scraping yellow mud from a few old yams: their hearty meal for the evening, along with anything else they could muster for the pot.
It should have been something more interesting. The party of buccaneers had chased the merchant sloop around the south coast of Hispaniola. The action had been short and bloody, yet hardly worth the effort. A few sacks of cane sugar, some low-grade agricultural tools, and three Negro plantation slaves. Such a haul did not go far between a motley gang of fifty-three buccaneers.
Jacob looked up and down the soft sands – white in daylight, but now the same bright orange as the setting sun. Many crackling fires dotted across the coral rich beach, where each small party of buccaneers cooked, drank, kept warm, told stories, or else dressed their wounds like Jacob.
He could hear snippets of laughter from the fire closest to their own, it mingled with the sounds of spitting wet wood, and the gentle lapping of waves upon the shoreline.
A crunch of footsteps came from his blind side. “What’s wrong with Molly?”
It was Bart, his cousin. The tall black-bearded man was his only connection to the life of a gentleman he could have had; his only connection to his past.
“He’s been calling her whore again,” Roy answered, placing a less than careful incision into the flesh of another fish.
“Oh,” Bart frowned, “well she is, isn’t she?”
“My point exactly.” Jacob grinned with false satisfaction.
“She is,” Roy agreed, “but she ain’t wanting it called from the tops’ls is she?”
“Well...” his cousin said with a shrug, then turned to Roy, “I have a few limes, a cup of sugar, some plantain from up the bay, and a young coconut. Any use?”
“Aye,” Roy answered gruffly, “it’ll do.” He took the offering of foraged ingredients, placing them beside the gutted fish and muddy yams.
Jacob watched as the barrel of a cook added the fish to the hot iron griddle in the embers. He knew they were lucky to have him in their company. Roy always ensured they were fed, no matter how poor the food components, or how few.
Bart sat on the abandoned driftwood, frowning into the fire. “Do you know what day it is tomorrow?”
“Can’t say I do.” Roy slapped another fish onto the hot griddle, it’s flesh curled upon the greased iron.
“I can’t remember the last time I knew the days of the week...” Jacob grinned, “and I can’t say I particularly care.”
The words of his cousin made them both look up in surprise. The very idea of Christmas seemed out of place here on the beach, amongst this gang of thieves and murderers.
“Christmas?” Roy asked with a deep frown, “You are sure?”
“Well,” Bart shrugged, “that’s according to the quartermaster, and he keeps the numbers. Of course, it depends which calendar we are following... But yes – Mister Mason is pretty adamant. It’s the day of Christmas Vigil on the morrow.”
Christmas... When had he last celebrated the birth of Jesus? When had he last been home to observe the local traditions?
He felt his mind wandering to the distant moors of Yorkshire’s North Riding, to his mother’s little cottage on the wealthy Campbell’s estate. Would the boughs of ivy, holly, and yew clad the long passage? Would Mrs Campbell be treating a multitude of guests to punch and her spiced pound cake?
Every year they opened the large manor house for local tenant farmers and the poor.
How had the old poem of Mister Campbell’s gone?
Now Christmas is come, Let us beat up the drum, And call all our Neighbours together...
He couldn’t remember the rest, but the old man had said it endlessly, insisting Christmas festivities were their Christian duty to provide warmth and comfort for the less fortunate...
“Hah... Christmas?” Roy spat a dark glob of phlegm into the fire. “The best and the worst of times.” He was attacking the lime with his knife now, squeezing the juice into the sugar.
“There’s a story there I’d wager?” Bart raised an eyebrow.
“Oh aye... and a grim story it is. You want to hear it?”
“Why not?” Jacob tried to give a sympathetic smile.
Roy nodded slowly. “Fine... but if we’re going to do this, we’ll do it properly. Jacob – look in my dunnage, there’s a bottle of something appropriate...”
Thanks for reading the first part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it!
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This work was written primarily as a result of the fantastic Google+ group SaturdayScenes. Look for the work of new and exciting authors every weekend under that hashtag.
If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NEST, GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...