Meeting Captain Red Ballantyne

This week, I’m sharing the opening chapter of a novel I wrote set in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of piracy.  This chapter introduces you to my two main characters, Red and Tam.  I will probably share a few more of their adventures in later Fiction Fridays.  I hope you enjoy meeting them.

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            “Are you Captain Red Ballantyne?”  I tried not to sound eager.  I failed.

             He studied me, brown eyes looking over the rim of his drink, and one corner of his mouth twisted up in a sardonic smile.  “That depends, lad,” he drawled.  “Did a woman send you, and did she look mad?”

            I had expected something less colorful.  Something like “yes.” The truth was, I already knew that he was Red Ballantyne.  That had been obvious the moment he came into the tavern.  The tavern girls knew him by name, had greeted him with enthusiasm, and several were sitting giggling at the back corner table with him.

            “Red, be nice,” the blonde on his left said, in a scolding voice that wasn’t really a reprimand.  I didn’t know her name.  The girls in there mostly ran together for me. “Don’t tease the poor boy.”

            “Who’s teasing?  A man’s got to watch his back,” he said, giving her a look entirely different from the one he’d flicked towards me.  It was the kind of look that meant he was going to forget I existed in another four seconds.

            It had taken me an hour to find a chance to sneak out of the kitchen, where I was supposed to be washing dishes.  I wasn’t willing to be forgotten that fast.  “A woman didn’t send me,” I said.  “The British Navy didn’t either.”  I figured those were the ones he really ought to worry about, so maybe I should rule out their involvement too.

            “I am an honest businessman with no personal interest in the armed forces of any country,” Red said, even more quickly than I’d spoken.  All of us, him, me, and all three girls—based on their expressions—knew that he was lying.  “I am interested in more drinks, though.”

            “Are you interested in hiring a cabin boy?”

            He gave me a slightly longer look.  I wished I was taller.  He returned to his drink.  “Not really.  Sorry, kid.  Now how’s about those drinks?  You do work here?”

            “Temporarily.”  Only while I was waiting for a pirate captain to come in who I could convince to hire me.  Red was the third one I’d seen since I’d started working there a month before.  He was the first one who didn’t look nasty and unpleasant, and who didn’t toss members of his own crew across the room after a few drinks.  I had decided that those weren’t the one I was waiting for.  I had also decided that Red was.  He was the one I’d heard the best stories about too.  “Actually, I’m really good at, you know, sailing stuff.  My uncle, he was a merchant sailor, before he died, and I used to sail on his ship, so I can splice lines and climb riggings and I know about sails and things, and—”

            “Talk a lot too, eh?”

            It wasn’t an especially friendly thing to say, but his expression was friendly enough.  I just shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

            “You forgot to tell me your name.”

            “Oh.  It’s Tam.”  It wasn’t, but it was close enough.

            “Uh-huh.  How old are you, Tam?”

            “Eleven.”  I wasn’t that either.

            “Right.  Take some good advice and go home.”

            “Haven’t got one.”  Not one I wanted to go back to.

            “Sorry to hear it.  But I still don’t need a cabin boy.  And I do need more drinks.”

            “Yeah, c’mon, boy, we’re thirsty,” the girl on Red’s right informed me, before turning a charming smile on Red again.

            “Good luck, kid,” Red said, already smiling back at her.  He wouldn’t think of me long.

            “Thanks,” I said anyway, and turned to go.

            I turned right around again when I heard Red remark, “Well, hellfire.”

            “What happened?” I asked, hopeful it would be something exciting.

            The girls were asking the same question, so it was hard to tell who Red answered.  “I swear, leave it to the Royal bloody British Navy to come walking in the door in their bloody blue coats and ruin an enjoyable evening.”

            I looked at the door.  There were four men coming in, wearing blue coats that positively dripped gold braid.  “I thought you weren’t personally interested in members of the armed forces.”  If I’d thought he was paying attention, I might not have said it.  “I thought you were an honest businessman.”

            He actually stopped watching the Navy long enough to stare at me for a second, and then grin.  “You didn’t think that.  If you had, you wouldn’t have asked me to hire you.” 

            That was true enough.

            Red finger-combed strands of hair over his face, as though that might make him more invisible.  His hair was longish—jaw-length, maybe—straight, and not well disciplined, hanging in strands past his eyes half the time anyway.  It was also brown, despite his name.  It wasn’t doing anything in the way of disguise, which he accepted after a few seconds and pushed it back again.  “Are they looking this way?”

            He didn’t direct that at me specifically, but I answered anyway.  “No.  Oh wait…yes.  I don’t think they see you yet.”  The tavern was crowded.  It was all I could do to see them, and they stood out more than Red did.  “They’ve got a piece of paper.  I can’t tell what it is.”

            “It’s a bloody wanted poster.”  I had the feeling he’d been through this before.  He pushed several mugs off a tray, shifting down in the seat and raising the tray to hide his face. 

            I continued giving information.  “They’re talking to Arabella.  She’s pointing this way.”

            “And I bought her a drink last time I was here.  That’s very disloyal of her.”

            “But everyone buys Arabella drinks.  Because whenever she bends over, her dress—”

            “I know.  Believe me, I know.  It’s still disloyal.  Is there a back door out of this place?”

            “Aw come on, Red, don’t leave now,” one girl protested.  “Just go kill them or something, and then come back.”

           I was with her.  I thought he should go fight them too.

          “It’d only make a mess and spoil the evening anyway,” Red said.  “I can never enjoy myself in a tavern that’s got blood on the floor.  It’s slippery.  Now is there another way out of here or not?”

         “There’s a door through the kitchen,” I offered.  “I can show you where it is.”  I still thought a fight would have been more exciting (and likely what would have happened in a pirate story), but an escape sequence wasn’t bad either.

        “Good,” Red said, and stood up.  “Lead on.”

       “Promise you’ll come back next time you’re in port,” one girl demanded.

      “I never make plans and I never make promises,” Red said, snatching up his long blue coat from where it lay sprawled across the bench.

       From what I could see, the Navy officers had recognized him, but were having trouble getting through the crowd.  All the same, it was a good thing the door to the kitchens was closer than the door the Navy was near.

      “C’mon this way,” I said, and started pushing through the crowd myself.

       I could hear Red muttering behind me, I think to himself.  “One minute I’m sitting with several drinks and several women, next minute I’m following an eleven year old boy through a crowd to escape the British Navy.  Life is strange.”  He sounded irritated, but amused too.

       I wondered how he’d feel if he knew the truth.  He wasn’t following an eleven year old boy; he was following a thirteen year old girl.

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