The Caribbean – late 1700s
The water was flatasa looking glass, capturingthe moonlight and stars that twinkled down from above and reflecting just enough light thatthe ship gliding ahead of them appeared black andghostlikeinthedarkness.
From her positionatthefront of the small dugout canoe in which she rode, Valoree motioned, and the men at the oars immediately slowedtheir rowing.At another signal, the sailors raised their oars out of the water, and the craftslid silently up beside the larger craft.
Immediately those on the left side of the canoewithdrew hooks on longropes and sent them whistling throughthe air to catch on therail above. For a momentthey waited, staring breathlessly up theside of the large galleon and holding the lines, allowing their craft to be dragged along bythe larger ship’s momentum. At last, whenahueandcryfailedto arise, all eyesslowlyreturned to Valoree.
Shestared back, knowing these menallsaw her asa slender youngman – little more than a boy, really.All of them butHenry.
He alone knew that their deceased captain’s younger brother Valerian, who had served as acabinboy These last eight years, was reallya girl. Of coursehe knew;he’d been the one who had suggestedthe charade so manyyears before, when he’d realized thatJeremy – hiscaptain and herbrother – intended tokeep her aboard aship full of pirates.
Aye, thesemen allthought hera lad, young and untried. And yet, they hadvowedto followher. Only a desire forvengeance could make these two dozenmen, cutthroats andhooligans all, follow someone they had always looked uponas a green lad, a little brother or son to be coddledand spoiled. Andvengeance they wouldhave.
Glancing down into thewater, Valoree took inherreflection.
Her bodywas slim – she waslean rather than muscular – and it trembledwith anticipation. For a momentshe imagined that her eyes were nolonger those of the youthwho hadmoved easily among these men, laughing and chatting as she’d gone about her chores. Nay, her eyesnow seemed old, hard, bitter with fresh loss. A lossthesemen sharedas well.
Herbrother had been a good manandafair captain, and his ship, theValor, had been the onlyhome most of his crew had knownforthe last eight years. The men who now accompanied her were thelastof that crew.She glanced aroundat them, then back at herreflection.
Thoughher shirt was her own, she now wore her brother’s breeches, along with his hatand jacket. Jeremy’s boarding ax and pike were hooked through the thick belt at her waist, and a brass-barreled flintlock was sticking out ofthose baggy, too-large pants.The captain’scutlass rested in its sheath where ithungat her side. She had taken his clothing when she had sworn’ vengeance for his death – andshe had notbathed since.
Everyinchof her body, every item, every inch of cloth, wood, and metal was covered with its owner’s dried blood, as were Valoree’s face, hands, and feet.Evenher longhair was crusty with the stuff.Though it wasnormally avibrant, fiery red – as her brother’s had been – it was now streaked through with crimson, marked by the red blood of her brother’s death – a reminder of her vow.
Herbrother had notdied easily. He had notdied quickly.He, along with the majority of his men, had died slowly and in torment. And for that, Valoree and the remainder of Jeremy’s crewhad vowed, these Spaniardswould pay.
Sheglanced toward Skullyandnodded. The cadaverous man immediately reached for histools, and Valoreeturnedher back as he began to bore holes in thebottomof theircraft. She regarded her crew, awaitingtheirreaction.She did nothave long to wait.
Skully wasstillworkingon the second hole when the last of them turned toherin understanding. In their faces she read approval and a grudgingrespect. To reassurethem of her intent, she half hissed, half whispered, "We take this shiporwedie. There is no escape. We fight not onlyto avenge the deaths of goodmen, but for our lives."
"Forour lives and vengeance, " Henry vowed beside her in a hushed tone. His words were immediately taken up by the others.
She relaxed somewhat at their acceptance, an odd calm overtaking heras shesilently watched Skullyfinishboringthe holes in the bottom of their boat. The holes were relatively small, butevenso, by the timehe hadstartedon thesixth, theboat was alreadygathering water andbeginning tosink.
As Skully hurriedly returned his tools to hissatchel, Valoree drew her brother’scutlass from its sheath. Moving to theside of their slowly sinking ship, she led the men inastealthyclimb up the side of the Spanish galleon. Her bare hands and feet moved surely up the rope until she reached the top, the others close behind. Pausing there, Valoree peered over the side and glared about.
Several men, taking advantage of the night breeze, were sleepingout in theopen airof the deck. Valoree glanced toward thehelm andsmiled grimly uponseeing thehelmsman. The man, while still athis post, hadnodded off and was nowdozing away his shift, senseless. There was no one to give an alarm. The Spaniards would betaken completely by surprise.
Slipping silently over the side, Valoree hunkered low, sticking totheshadows. Her men followed. As thelastof them slid tothe deck, she gestured silently, dividing them intotwo groupswith onesimplewave of herhand, then gesturingfor one group to stay abovedeck, while directing the otherstoward the darkhole that was theentrance to thecabins. Theyall beganto moveat once, separating andmoving all over the ship. The men above deck positionedthemselves amongthe sleeping Spaniards, ready to set to work, butwaiting the few moments necessary to allow those men slipping through the hole to reach their targets, lest some sound ordeath crywarn theirenemiesbelow.
Leaving the rest of the crew to the others, Valoree moved stealthily toward the helmsman. She had nearly reached him when something startled the man awake.
Drawing a sword, the Spaniard peered blearily at her. She froze, but his gaze found her anyway. Takingin Jeremy’sbloody clothesandherredhair flowing about her blood-streaked face, heblinked.
"Rojo …El Capitan Rojo? "
Valoree stiffened at the words, recognizing the name the Spanish used for herbrother. Captain Red, because of his red hair.
"Regresadelmuerto… El Rojo, " the man whispered faintly, then straightened abruptly, shrieking."Regresa del muerto. El Rojo!"
His cry awokeothers nearby, and thesleepy-eyed menturned to gape at herin horror. Thehelmsman’s cry was taken up again andagain. "Regresa del muerto.ElRojo!"
For a moment, everyone was still. The others she’d brought withher, startled by the shouting, turned to peerat Valoree. She drew back, annoyed, then peeredaboutatthefrozen tableau. Her crewmates seemedastransfixedasthe Spaniards. With aglance atthe nearest of the men, she snappedirritably, "What the devil ishe saying, Henry? "
Drawn out of his startled state by the question, the quartermaster relaxed andgrimly smiled. Thenhe shrugged. "He’s thinkin’ ye’re yer own brother, Captain Red.He’s thinkin’ye’re backfrom the dead. He’sscreamin’ ‘Back-from-the-Dead Red, ‘"
heexplained. Thecry continued around them.
"Regresadelmuerto. El Rojo!"
"Back-from-the-Dead Red? " Valoree repeated, then frownedat theterrified Spaniards."Well, atleastthey shall know whythey die." Raising Jeremy’s cutlass, she advancedon the helmsman, but much to her consternation, the man immediatelydropped his weapon. For a moment, Valoree wasnonplussed, butthe sudden chorus of metal against wood drew her attention to thefact that every Spaniard aboard the ship was nowgivingup his weapon unasked, all dropping themto the deck floor.
"What the devil are they doing? " Valoree cried in dismay."Are they notgoing to fight? "
Henry glanced around, then turned to face her. "Well, " he drawled, scratching at his ear. "I’mthinkin’ they’rethinkin’ that since ye’re a ghostand all, there ain’t no sense in afightin’ ye.
Most like they think we’re the restof the men that were kilt… and yecain’t kill someonewhat’s already dead."
Valoree glanced up at hearingagain the helmsman’s terrified murmur. The Spaniard was now tugging his pistol free and dropping it on the deck beside his sword. Throughout, he continuedmumbling, "Regresa del muerto.ElRojo."
Before shecoulddecide on a course of action, a scuffle atthe entrance to the cabinsdrewherattention.Valoreeglanced over as the men who had gone below returned, pushing several captives ahead of them. The first wasobviously the captain, and helooked angry. He also looked willingto fight, Valoree saw withrelief. At least someone would. It was hard to take revenge when the enemy refused to fight. She wouldn’t simply kill unarmed men; thatwas not fair. She was just about to move to confront the Spanish captain when the helmsman spotted his commander. He immediately shrieked, "El Rojo! Regresa del muerto!"
The captain started to glance toward the man, but his gaze caught and stayed onValoree.Thewhipping wind filled the cloth ofJeremy’s jacket, making her appear larger thanshe was, and She hadtofight to keepherbloody red hair from covering her eyes. She pulledJeremy’shatdown further ontoher head and glared at the Spaniard with hatred. The man gaped, then murmured, "ElRojo? "
"Si, " the helmsman cried. "ElRojo, regresa del muerto."
"Shut up!" Valoree saidin a growl tothemouthy sailor. She was sick ofhearing those words.Starkterrorentered the captain’s face aswell."Tell him toshut up, Henry, "she said hurriedly.
Henry translated the order into Spanish, but the panicked helmsmancould nothave obeyedhad he wished to. He seemed able only to repeathimself over and over. Irritated, Valoree drew Jeremy’s flintlock pistol andshot him.
The mandroppedtothe deck with a shriek, grabbing forthe wound in his leg.
As if that were the signal for somepreplanned form of action, the Spaniards all made asuddenexodustowardthe sides of the ship. Taken bysurprise, Valoree andthe others could onlywatch inamazementas thecrew of the galleon, as one, castthemselves screaming into shark-infested water.
Cursingunder her breath, Valoreestalked to the side of the ship and peered down at the men in the sea below.They were thrashing about in the water, moving in the generaldirection of the nearest island. "The gunnycowards, " shemuttered.
"Aye, " Henry agreed.Heandthe rest of the men had moved closer to peer down at theirfleeing adversaries.
Slamming a palm down on the rail in frustration, Valoree cursed. "Jumping rather than fighting, can youimagine? "
Henry shook his head."SpinelessSpanishbastards."
Sighing, she frowned at the water below. A moment later, One-Eye let out a dismayed oath.Glancingup, Valoree peered over at where he waspointing. The helmsman wason his feet, and had hopped to the side of the ship. Hewas now balancing himself precariously on the railing. As she watched in amazement, theman hefted himselfover the sideof theboat to land withasplashin the water behind his comrades. It seemed that swimming with sharks was more attractive than keeping company with ghosts, even for the wounded man.
"Ye want we should shootthem? " One-Eye asked with little enthusiasm.
Valoree shookher head in disgust. "Leave go. They are not likely to make itto shore. ‘Sides, noneof thembore the scar." She desired revenge, but there was no pleasure in killing cowards.
The othersnodded in agreement. Besides, this wasapparently not the shipof their trueenemy. One of thefewthings they had learnedfromJeremy, ere he took hislast breath, was that the Spaniard whohad ordered the torturous deaths ofher brother and somany of hismen borea scar inthe shape of aquestion mark onhisneck. Andthecaptainof this vessel had borneno such scar.
Sighing, Valoree straightened and turnedto survey theSpanish galleon."Well, " shesaidsoftly, "it wouldseem we have a ship."
"Aye, "Henry murmured. "That itwould."
"Have we enough mento sail it? "
Henry surveyed the small number of their remaining crew.
"Aye, "he said. "Enoughto getto port and pick up more men…
Valoree glanced at him sharply. "Captain? "
He nodded solemnly. "Aye. Of this, the Valor II. I’m thinkin’ we’vegot us a fine captain. Ye’ve the spirit, the courage, the determination… and, better yet, ye’ve already got yerself a reputationand title."When she looked bewildered, he shrugged.
"Ye’ve already taken yer firstship.If any ofthose men out there survive their swim, all will hearabout theirterrifying encounter with Back-from-the-Dead Red."
Valoree rolled hereyes and glancedat theothers. All of them were standing about, nodding in agreement. It seemed she had not only stepped into her brother’s clothes, but she had also stepped into his command. Back-from-the-Dead Red, indeed.
Thanks to a load of superstitious Spaniards, she was now the captain of some of the most bloodthirsty cutthroatsit hadever beenher misfortuneto meet – ifshewanted them.She wasonly nineteen. That was young to bea captain. But then, Jeremy had beenonly eighteen whenshe had helpedhim purchaseand outfit the Valor. And asfor her gender, theyalready thoughther a boy.
Seeingherhesitation, Henry moved closer. "Now, thinkon it for aminute before yego making up your mind. Cap’nRed – yer brother Jeremy – he did this only to make somemoney;then he planned to go claim your familyestate, set it to rights, settle down, and start a family."
"Aye, but – "
"But nothing. Now that dreamis yours."
Valoreeblinkedat that. "What meanyou, now that dream is mine? "she asked suspiciously.
"I mean, with him gone, ye haveto make hisdreamcometrue for him. Claimtheinheritance, settledown, start a family."
Valoree wassilent for a moment, thenfrowned. "But I do not have the money to – "
"Well, that there is true enough.That was what Jeremy was doin’, earnin’ the money toclaim theestate. It’snot been livedin since ye was a weebabe. He said heneededa fair sumto putthe placeto rights."
"Andhehadearned it, "One-Eye put in bitterly."Morethan enough to claimthe land and set it to rights. We wereall tohave homesthere, "he reminded her. "He promised allofus acottage anda little plot of land.He – "
"The boyknows all about that, One-Eye, " Henry interrupted, silencing the first-mate.
"Aye, Iknow." Valoreesighed. "But the Spaniards took the riches whentheykilled Jeremy."