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The Bijoux Bird
by Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens


The British navy’s blockade of Nassau Harbor transformed the mood of the pirate republic from drunken revelry into sheer panic. With the harbor’s mouth closed, and the mouths of men open in ragged-toothed outrage, the response of the Ranger’s captain, Charles Vane, proved typically demented.

His long black leather coat flapping like a cape, the pirate skipper ordered his men to load a recently captured brigantine with lamp oil, rope, and extra sails, anything flammable. He bade them double-load the cannon, knowing the big guns when heated up would fire in a random and deadly fashion. Then the crew slathered the entire cargo—the ship’s decks, sails, and all—in viscous black tar.

When the ship was prepared to Vane’s satisfaction, he stood at the rail of the Ranger while his crew clamored back across timbers stretched between the two vessels, their captain relishing the sight of the floating disaster-to-be.

Daniel Brock and his Black comrade Titus were the last to arrive at the rail of the brigantine, only to find their fellow sailors already withdrawing the timbers back onto the Ranger. In the gathering darkness, bathed in flickering firelight, Vane stood in towering madness, crazy eyes wide, whites clearly visible all round, his long dark curly hair like a nest of snakes . . . and a flintlock pistol pointed at Brock’s head.

Knowing full well his captain to be utterly unhinged, Brock held up both hands. Titus followed his shipmate’s example.

Grinning, eyes glittering, Vane called over, “Many thanks to you for volunteering, my good man!”

Brock called, “But Captain, we did not—”

Vane interrupted with a hammer cock of the pistol. “As you two are new to my crew, you have yet to prove yourselves. So I will give you the opportunity now to impress your captain.”

Knowing Vane would as soon shoot him as a random sailor defending a ransacked ship, Brock fell silent. Besides, their cracked captain was right, if not in the way he imagined: Brock and Titus were indeed seizing an opportunity. . . .

Vane called out almost cheerfully: “Now do my bidding, and briefly helm this fire-ship, then make use of the dinghy tied at the stern and rejoin your crewmates on the Ranger.”

Brock said, “We may not be able to catch up with you, Captain.”

With a dismissive flip of a hand, Vane said, “In such event, row to shore and we will see you upon our return.”

As the Ranger swung away, Brock turned to Titus with a grin. “So far, so good.”

“You are a loon, Daniel Brock.”

“Such is necessary in besting a lunatic captain.”

Twenty-three, sleekly muscular from ten years at sea, Brock was nonetheless overshadowed by the sinewy Moor, who stood well over six feet.

Titus had been on his way to be sold when his ship was taken as a prize by Black Sam Bellamy, Brock’s prior captain, who freed the kidnapped human cargo from the ship’s hold and enlisted them as seamen, Titus included. With Bellamy retiring to Massachusetts, Brock and his new comrade Titus had been left without berths. Falling in with the likes of Vane had been bad enough; being unemployed in Nassau could prove worse.

“We must cut the anchor rope,” Brock advised his shipmate.

Getting the sails up would have been impossible for just two sailors, but the crew had taken care of that, coating the rigging as well. With tar-pit stench twitching in his nostrils, Brock knew the commandeered craft would soon go up in flames worthy of Hell itself. Titus hoisted an axe as if it were a twig, the blade severing the anchor rope.

With wind already filling its sails, the ship seemed to explode from its anchorage, heading straight for the harbor’s mouth and the British ships. As the craft lurched forward, the two pirates held onto rigging to keep from being flung overboard.

Once at the helm, keeping the brigantine on target, Brock knew the real work of the evening lay ahead. He and Titus had lingered on purpose, figuring correctly that Vane would pick the last two men on the captured vessel to captain the fire-ship. As soon as Vane revealed his plan, Brock saw the opportunity he and Titus had been waiting for.

The brigantine glided through the darkness, no running lamps or torches, only the few scattered lights of Nassau behind them to even offer up a silhouette of the ship floating toward the fleet, gaining speed as it went.

Now, Titus! Set her ablaze!”

The big Black man used a striker, a device with flint on one blade and steel on the other. He rubbed the blades together, creating sparks that soon ignited a tar-soaked torch. With the torch lit, an orange-blue dragon’s tongue licking the night, Titus looked back at Brock at the helm.

“Toss ’er up into the sails,” Brock said, “then over the side we go.”

Titus heaved the torch high. Like a comet it streaked across the night sky, then landed against a wind-filled sail. Flames blossomed into an all-encompassing orange glow that turned the night to noon.

Brock held the helm steady as embers fell from the burning sail and ignited the deck, then the ropes, and soon the other sails, as Titus hurled himself over the portside rail.

Using a striker of his own, Brock ignited a second torch, throwing it down from the quarterdeck onto the main deck. Another fireball erupted and the deck burned as bright as the sails, flames dancing a tarantella on the wooden floor.

Then came the first panicked shouts of British sailors in the distance, and Brock flung himself over the side and into a darkness of night and waves. He found the water’s chill bracing as he kicked to the surface, then swam straight for the brigantine’s stern.

Titus, already on-board the dinghy, had cut the line, the small boat floating free as the fire-ship’s flames screamed a hoarse protest. Then Brock was up and in, as their crazed captain’s scheme came to life, the burning vessel making its inexorable way to the British ships, who cut their anchor lines and scattered, while at the south tip of the harbor, the Ranger hastened out to the open sea.

The pair gave scant thought to either Vane or the British—Brock and Titus had much to do and little time to do it in. Each man grabbed an oar and paddled back toward shore. Even as they rowed, hard, Brock’s mind returned to earlier that day when their own mad scheming had begun. . . .


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024 The Bijoux Bird by Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens

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