When I was a boy, I thought going to sea was a great adventure that would be good fun. I would spend hours watching the ships come and go out of Whitby Harbor or spying on the workers in the shipyards as they constructed the great vessels. When I finally came of age, I fell prey to the lies of that monster they call the British East India Trading Company and joined the Royal Navy. In hindsight, I think this was a good thing. The harsh life on board a real man-of-war knocked all romantic fantasies about the sea out of my head. The grub was never good, the work was backbreaking, and the only reward marines got for their toil were Spanish cannon balls, French sword blades, or, worst of all, fierce skirmishes with pirates. As soon as my contract was up, I left His Majesty’s navy and found myself back in Whitby, as penniless as could be. But one thing I was sure of: I was never going back to sea.
And then I met the captain.
I was in the White Whale, spending the last of my shillings on tankards. Sitting at a table all by myself, with the odors of strong drink and sweaty men surrounding me, I sipped as slowly as I could, knowing that when I walked away from this place, I would need to find employment or else starve. Perhaps I can find work as a dock hand, I thought to myself, scratching my long, scraggly beard.
A figure brushed my shoulder and then sat down across from me. I raised my head so I could see the unwelcome intruder from under my tricorn hat. The man was a stranger to me, which was not unusual. Whitby was a seaport, and there were always people coming and going. But this man looked very different from those kinds of folk. From his clothes I could tell that he was a seaman, but what struck me was that his face was shaven, without the slightest trace of a beard, even though he was clearly not a marine. His face was one of those strange faces that makes it hard to determine age. At first, I thought he could not be over twenty, but when I looked closer and saw the maturity of his features and the squareness of his form, I wondered if he could be in his thirties. His dark brown hair was neatly pulled back in a ponytail, and a wide-brimmed black hat adorned with a crimson feather sat neatly upon it. He wore a worn, black coat over a simple white shirt, and when he leaned toward me over the table, the handles of a brace of pistols peeked out. A brown leather shoulder strap carried a shiny rapier at his side.
“Henry Clarke, I presume?” the stranger said. His manners impressed me. He was confident but not arrogant.
“Aye,” was my response, “and you are?”
“Captain Joseph William Deney, at your service.”
I set my tankard down and leaned back. “What do you want with me?”
“They say you are one of the best navigators in His Majesty’s navy. Is that true?”
“It was,” I said.
“I need a new navigator—”
“No thank you, Mr. Deney. I’m done with the sea, thank you very much.”
“The position pays very well.”
I looked at my toes peeking through my boots. The holes in the knees of my trousers. My patched coat and thin shirt. Money would come in handy right now. But not at the cost of going to sea again. “I don’t care. I’m not setting foot in another barnacle-crusted, tar-smeared, scurvy-stricken sailing tub as long as I live.”
Captain Deney looked at me with determination. “My ship is no barnacle-crusted, tar-smeared, scurvy-stricken sailing tub. My ship is the Adventurer. She’s not just any ship. She sails with a mission.”
The captain withdrew a rolled-up paper from his coat and placed it on the table. Curious, I took it and unrolled it. Then it dawned on me as soon as I saw the image at the top of the document: an owl perched on a scale. I had heard one or two rumors of the Ocracoke Guild before from other marines but had since forgotten, since not many knew about it. From what I had heard, the Ocracoke Guild was a pirate-fighting organization supported by several wealthy, anonymous individuals.
Its existence unknown to most of the public, it was dedicated to purging the high seas of the last of the feared raiders. According to legend, its founder was none other than Robert Maynard, the man who had killed the infamous pirate Blackbeard himself at Ocracoke Inlet off the coast of the American colonies. I had seriously doubted the existence of the guild, but here in my hands I held a document that had been drawn up to contract me into its service.
“So you are one of those pirate hunters,” I said, amazed.
“Aye,” the captain said, smiling, “and we’re asking you to join us.”
“You ask in vain,” I said, setting the contract back on the table. “I’m never going back to sea.”
“Yes, you are,” Deney said. “I need you. What will it take to persuade you?”
In that moment I had an idea of how I could earn some fast money. I smiled inwardly at my cunning. “How about a challenge?” I asked.
“What kind?” the captain asked, interested.
“Knife throwing,” I said. “If I win, you give me ten pounds and leave me be. If you win, I’ll join your crew without hesitation.”
“What will be our target?”
I cast around for a suitable object. My eyes alighted on the contract. I snatched it up. “The owl,” I said, somewhat loudly.
Then, I noticed how quiet the room had gotten. No one was drinking or chewing tobacco. Men can sense when a game is afoot. The eyes of both grizzled old seamen and strapping young sailors alike were upon us, watching.
Captain Deney smiled. “Agreed.”
We both stood up. I was surprised to find that I was nearly a head taller than my opponent. I had expected a man who called himself a captain of a ship to be tall and imposing, just like my officers in the navy.
I grinned in confidence as an old sailor removed some chewing tobacco from his mouth and used it to stick my contract to the wall of the tavern. Captain Deney didn’t know what he was up against. I had been throwing knives since my youth, and no one in Whitby nor in the marines had ever proven my equal, let alone surpassed my skill. Once the man stepped back, I drew my whaling knife and jumped onto a table on the far side of the room. After orienting myself for a few seconds, I let the knife fly. It spun in several arcs and then pierced the owl directly in the center. Immediately, half a dozen men gathered around it.
“Why, she be dead center!”
“Ain’t no man can beat that throw.”
“Will, move out of me way, mate.”
“And with a clumsy old whaling knife, too.”
I smirked and confidently turned to face the captain, who had already joined me on the table.
“Good throw,” he complimented. His face was taciturn. He drew a dagger.
“No, no,” I protested. “You throw the knife too. That way it’s fair. Sam, matey, the knife!”
“I’ll throw my own blade,” Deney said as the sailor withdrew the knife from the wall. “Let each man throw with the weapon he’s used to. That’s fair.”
With that, he drew back his hand and sent the dagger spinning. My heart lunged into my throat as I saw the great skill of the throw. As soon as the blade penetrated the wooden wall, the men quickly gathered around the contract again.
“Barnacles and bilge rats! He hit the very same spot!”
“Why, so he did!”
My heart skipped a beat. I had never met anyone with as great a skill as mine. I glanced over at the captain out of the corner of my eye. His face was still expressionless as he passed me to retrieve his dagger, but I could tell by a new twinkle in his eye that he was enjoying the competition. Still, I knew I could beat him.
“Well thrown,” I said. “We shall need a harder target. Can you hit the owl right between the eyes?” With those words, I hurled my knife again. I put all my concentration into the effort of sending the once cold metal of the blade, now warmed by the flesh of my fingers, slicing through the heavy air of the tavern and into my target. There was a satisfying chopping sound as the knife once again pierced the wood. But before the men could crowd around, a shout from Deney.
He jumped back onto the table and let his dagger fly. I followed the weapon with my eyes until the point of it embedded right in the end of the whalebone handle of my knife. For a moment, everyone stared in silence, and my jaw dropped. The knives sagged and dropped to the floor, separating through the impact. The room erupted in excited male voices roaring as the men rushed to the captain and lifted him off the table and onto their shoulders. The bartender offered free drinks all around, and soon the spigots were flowing and the casks emptying.
The whole time I sat by myself, watching in wonder and awe. Why couldn’t I be like that? I wondered. Why had my life been hard and so unfulfilling, while this man seemed to get everything he wanted? Why was fate now dragging me back to the life I had so vehemently abandoned?
I looked around at the groups of men. Deney was still surrounded by the throng of admiring men congratulating him. Maybe I could leave without him seeing me and thereby escape the obligation I had so foolishly thrown myself into. I walked quickly to the door. Then the thought struck me. My whaling knife.
“Looking for this?” a by now all-too-familiar voice asked behind me.
I turned around and accepted the knife, nodding in cold gratitude. Captain Deney peeled the tobacco off the contract, which he had also retrieved, and stuck it in his mouth.
“Welcome aboard, mate.”
TO BE CONTINUED…